Your innovation stands on the shoulders of giants

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If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.

shouldergiantsSo said Isaac Newton in his famous letter to fellow scientist Robert Hook in 1676.  The sentiment behind the saying eloquently reminds us that few of our great insights are ever achieved without building upon a large canon of work that has gone before us.

Except the whole intellectual property system discourages that approach.  It discourages the open sharing of knowledge and insight in favour of providing those with holding a patent with monopoly power over that insight.  Whilst the system is designed to encourage and promote innovation, it actually does the opposite.

A paper published a few years ago by Josh Lerner highlights this quite starkly.  He analysed changes in IP law in 60 countries over a 150 year period.  That meant over 300 distinct policy changes.  He found that when patent laws were strengthened, whether in developed or developing countries, the number of patents issued dropped.

So when the system was altered to encourage greater innovation, it actually produced less.  That seems counter intuitive doesn’t it?  Except when you think about it in more depth, it isn’t at all.  It all rests on the shoulders of giants you see.  Innovation happens best when there is a ready supply of knowledge and insight for people to either build on or remix in new ways.

When patent protection is increased therefore, it has the knock-on effect of increasing the cost of innovation for the entire economy.  It doesn’t even benefit the company holding the patent, because the costs involved with researching and developing their IP increases such as to render their profitable monopoly worthless.

Support for opening up our intellectual property also arrived via a recent University of Buffalo study.   The study suggests that the benefits of giving up patent protection far outweigh the risks of surrendering market share.  Their findings reveal that by opening up their original innovation to further research it helps to stimulate demand for the product, whilst at the same time enabling it to evolve more rapidly.

“This research arose from the notion that a too-tight patent protection actually may hinder technological progress, reflected in sovereign acts taken by firms who give it up,” Gilad Sorek, author of the study explains.

So whilst the company may lose a bit of market share as other companies build on the original innovation, the process of doing this makes the entire market larger, therefore benefiting the original innovator more than if they had kept things to themselves.

If you want your company to stand on the shoulders of giants therefore, the best way will be to open up your own intellectual property, and encourage others in your industry to do likewise.

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