Steven Johnson recently wrote a book called “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.” He's also authored this opinion piece published in yesterday's New York Times on the power of non-proprietary innovation. Here's an excerpt:
In my research, I analyzed 300 of the most influential innovations in science, commerce and technology — from the discovery of vacuums to the vacuum tube to the vacuum cleaner — and put the innovators of each breakthrough into one of four quadrants. First, there is the classic solo entrepreneur, protecting innovations in order to benefit from them financially; then the amateur individual, exploring and inventing for the love of it. Then there are the private corporations collaborating on ideas while simultaneously competing with one another. And then there is what I call the “fourth quadrant”: the space of collaborative, nonproprietary innovation, exemplified in recent years by the Internet and the Web, two groundbreaking innovations not owned by anyone. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that market forces drive innovation, with businesses propelled to new ideas by the promise of financial reward. And yet even in the heyday of industrial and consumer capitalism over the last two centuries, the fourth quadrant turns out to have generated more world-changing ideas than the competitive sphere of the marketplace. Batteries, bifocals, neonatal incubators, birth control pills — all originated either in amateur labs or in academic environments.
Are our intellectual property laws overprotective? Do they protect inventions for too long at too great a cost?