We recently posted an MIT Tech Review story looking at the return of "inventors" instead of innovators. The article named the well known "great inventors" from a century ago. In the comments, someone properly took me to task for simply parroting the line about these inventors, when most of the stories about their "inventions" were mythical. Now, Michael Schrage (again at MIT's Tech Review) is arguing convincingly that for all the hype around inventors, innovation is much more important - and (more importantly) is entirely separate from invention. He names the same "inventors" named in the original article and points out that the truth of the matter is that they were all innovators rather than inventors (and its only the distance of history that has rewritten their stories as if they were inventors). He points out that invention has nothing to do with commercial success - whereas innovation has everything to do with it. Furthermore, this ties into the ongoing debate over patent reform: "If you want to learn about the importance of "invention" over the past 300 years, talk to the lawyers. If you want to hear about the importance of "innovation," however, talk to anyone else." So, the real question then, is whether or not our intellectual property system should be encouraging invention or innovation? I'd vote for innovation, as that's what drives the economy, and that would suggest we need fewer lawyers involved with the patent system, and perhaps more innovators. The following point is also important: "the technical excellence of an invention matters far less than the economic willingness of the customer or client to explore it." In other words, any system designed to encourage innovation needs to encourage actually making use of the innovation - and not, for example, sitting on a patent and doing nothing with it, while waiting for others to innovate and then hitting them with a patent infringement lawsuit.
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