Why Just Copying Isn't Enough: Cargo Cult Science And Copycats

from the gotta-leapfrog dept

We've talked about cargo cults in the past around here, and Boing Boing points us to a great video of a talk by Jeff Veen, which argues that copycat innovators are a form of a cargo cult:
The point he's making is one that we've tried to make here many times in the past -- though his analogy is much better than most we've used. Basically, it's easy to just copy what you think is cool about a product, but that's rarely (if ever) enough to actually get people to buy. This is an issue we see all the time when people get upset about our position on patents. They say that, without patents, someone would just come in and "steal" the idea, and then where would you be? But, the fact is, just being able to "copy" the product isn't enough to get it sold.

If you're truly innovative, then you not only understand your product better than some random copycat, but you also understand what makes your market want your product.

That can't be copied. Not easily. Yes, the copycat may win over some customers, but it's not the same. And, by knowing the product and the market better than anyone else, you should also be able to stay ahead of the curve and keep innovating. The copycat just has to catch up -- they're running towards where they think you were, when you may already be well past that.

But the comparison to a cargo cult is quite accurate. The cargo cultists built up their faux airports, thinking that it would bring in the same wonders as the real wartime airports did. Companies make copycat iPhones because they think that people will suddenly rush to buy them like they bought the iPhone. But it doesn't work that way.


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  1.  
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    sehlat (profile), Aug 27th, 2009 @ 2:16pm

    Kiplng said it best.

    From: THE "MARY GLOSTER"

    And they asked me how I did it, and I gave 'em the Scripture text,
    "You keep your light so shining a little in front o' the next!"
    They copied all they could follow, but they couldn't copy my mind,
    And I left 'em sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.

     

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  2.  
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    Jupiter, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 2:17pm

    MS

    Of course, most of what Microsoft has done in the past is copy other companies products. Microsoft is rarely the innovator, they just make great copies.

     

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  3.  
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    PRMan, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 2:58pm

    Going back to our TiVo discussion...

    You're still wrong.

    That works great if you don't have multi-billion dollar companies blocking access to the market.

    With patents, the little guy (TiVo in the earlier case) can still profit off their invention.

    Without patents, the big guys can block them out by having monopolies on all the means of distribution and creating laws that forbid TiVo from EVER making an HD device that works without them, because HD recording has been made impossible/illegal and CableCards have (purposefully) been left to die on the vine and to be hamstrung by SDV.

    TiVo CANNOT out-innovate their competitors because the competitors can steal TiVo's ideas and use their billions and monopoly positions to dump product at $5-$7/month. TiVo CANNOT do anything else about this, because they don't have the billions to launch a satellite service and nobody can effectively compete against the cable monopolies. They also cannot create an HD TiVo that works on any satellite or cable system.

    A patent allows them to collect a return on investment despite the monopolies. It also allows them to sign licensing deals (framed as pledge-not-to-sue contracts) with DirecTV and Comcast.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 3:24pm

    Cargo cult? Wow, talk about heading out for a long walk in the woods and not coming back.

    True innovation learns from the past, and significantly advance things by doing things in a new way. Copycats duplicate, and perhaps paint something a different color or add a single extra feature and scream "NEW!" when it fact it is old.

    However, copycats often win the marketplace because they can sell products at significantly lower prices. If R&D is 20% of a company's outlay, the copycat might only have to pay out 1% to develop the copy. So they can carry that 19% advantage to the marketplace and take at least some marketshare.

    For every Ipod, there is a zippy mop or whatever that isn't particularly brand sensitive, and the lower price player almost always wins.

    Every time someone actually innovates, copycats come in and steal away the profits to pay for the next innovation. It is where patents and copyrights come into play, keeping the copycats out of the game, and allowing for a reasonable flow of returns to people who actually come up with the innovations.

    Heck Mike, if I didn't know better, you would almost be making the case FOR patents.

     

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  5.  
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    Matt (profile), Aug 27th, 2009 @ 5:07pm

    The trouble with this "patents ensure returns for innovators" argument is that it is empirically false. That is not what patents actually do. And, arguably, it is not even what they are for.

    Patents create negative rights - the right to keep people out of the marketplace. They do not ensure profit for anyone, and often as not do not lead to profit for anyone. Worse, they can hamstring innovation both directly (patents are regularly obtained just to keep more innovative competitors out of the marketplace,) and indirectly (by locking up the predecessor technology, first movers can make it more difficult for competitors to innovate new solutions).

    In any event, put aside the moral conviction (itself perhaps a creature of the cultural influence of IP,) and why should society accept an economic drag just to ensure that profits are distributed to the innovator, rather than the most effective market player? Why should innovation be the skill we make laws to reward? Arguably the larger contribution is made by the person who identifies the value of an existing technology and creates a healthy marketplace for it. Why not protect their ability to do so, even if it means interfering with an innovator's ROI?

     

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  6.  
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    Adam Wasserman (profile), Aug 27th, 2009 @ 5:13pm

    Re:

    True innovation?

    Is that like the One True Brace Style?

    It seems you are saying that since True Innovation learns from the past, something that was a complete break from the past - let us consider quantum theory compared to Newtonian physics - could not be considered innovation.

    As for your comments about copycats "stealing away" "the profits" it sounds to me (and it could just be me) as if you would like a sinecure.

    Well, that is just not the way the world usually works, and when some artificial mechanism is put into place to provide a sinecure, the historical reality has been that it disappears (along with the regime that instituted it) when the inequities inherent in the system become intolerable for the common people who shoulder the burden.

     

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  7.  
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    CrushU, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 5:23pm

    Eli Whitney and Copyright

    Wayyy back in High school, I had to do a report on Eli Whitney, inventor of the Cotton Gin (and also a standardized system for gun parts, people forget that one sometimes.)

    He actually had patent troubles, believe it or not. He'd tried to patent his gin, but while the process was going through, copycats reproduced his gin (don't recall if pricepoint was less) The point was that instead of the 100% he should've had as the initial inventor of a new concept, he ended up with like 10 businesses all competing, none of them had come up with the original design, except for Whitney. Since he owned the patent on it, he tried to sue to keep others from using his invention; and failed.

    This is what I think of whenever this issue of copycats comes up. Now, the big difference between these issues and Whitney's are that Whitney's invention was never seen before, and it was something Physical, that he built. Can you address this sort of dilemma? What if someone today made something new, but it was copied too quickly for him to compete? Would patents not help this person? (Let's say... a Faster-than-Light drive, just for something that definitely doesn't exist right now, and would be in HIGH demand.)

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 5:26pm

    If you like this video, I am sure you will love the one on Patently-O.

     

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  9.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 27th, 2009 @ 5:44pm

    Re:

    If you like this video, I am sure you will love the one on Patently-O.

    Heh. Let's see... one video (above) from a guy who's got a long track record of successfully designing products. And one from a guy who's job is entirely based on keeping IP strong. Which one is more credible?

     

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  10.  
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    ..., Aug 27th, 2009 @ 6:09pm

    Re: Going back to our TiVo discussion...

    phfffffft

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 7:00pm

    Re: Re:

    Obviously I mentioned the second video because the comments are grist for the techdirt mill. As you likely know, the speaker is Judge Rader, who sits on the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 7:02pm

    Re: Re:

    BTW, the CAFC's jurisdiction involves a large caseload far beyond just patents.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 7:15pm

    Re:

    "Why should innovation be the skill we make laws to reward? Arguably the larger contribution is made by the person who identifies the value of an existing technology and creates a healthy marketplace for it"

    Think about it this way: Without the innovation, what marketplace was the person making? None, because he had no product to bring to market. It would be like saying that the guy who puts the batteries in a remote control is the real innovator in remotes. Marketing at best completes the product.

    So all the other steps in a products life, from the color of the box to the catchy name to the horrible radio jingle are all for not, without the initial product, the promote nothing. Thus the product, not the marketing and not the salesmanship, is what warrant protection.

    "The trouble with this "patents ensure returns for innovators" argument is that it is empirically false. That is not what patents actually do. And, arguably, it is not even what they are for."

    That is the standard Techdirt line, one that pretty much always makes me giggle. Patents keep innovators from having to compete with themselves, unless they want to, by licensing their technology / idea / product to others. It allows the innovator the time to bring a product to market and to profit from it, without the fear that copycats can take the same idea, replicate it, and compete without the costs of development (time and money).

    Does that keep others out of the market? Well, yeah, that is sort of the idea, no? If others want to be in the market, they negotiate a fee that covers the technology, or they don't (or can't) and they don't enter the market place. It creates a level playing field, perhaps one even slightly more tilted towards the innovator - the rewards for being first.

    As a side note, bringing something to market may mean nothing more than licensing the technology. It isn't always a product on a retail shelf that is "brought to market".

    ".Worse, they can hamstring innovation both directly (patents are regularly obtained just to keep more innovative competitors out of the marketplace,) and indirectly (by locking up the predecessor technology, first movers can make it more difficult for competitors to innovate new solutions)."

    Again, rewards for the people who come up with today the solutions to tomorrow's needs. Innovative competitiors will come up with a different way to accomplish the same and better, or they will license the technology.

    Why do you have such a problem with this? All you seem to be doing is sticking up for those who want to copy off of others, regardless of the negative implications for future advances.

    Any empirical data on what the effects of the financial implications for inventors / innovators when there is no patent protection? Any data on the effects on development as a result? It's easy to build a case when you only look at one side.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2009 @ 8:43pm

    Re: Eli Whitney and Copyright

    "instead of the 100% he should've had as the initial inventor of a new concept, he ended up with like 10 businesses all competing..."

    Have you ever heard of begging the question?

     

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  15.  
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    Ed C., Aug 27th, 2009 @ 11:20pm

    Re: Re:

    "Again, rewards for the people who come up with today the solutions to tomorrow's needs. Innovative competitiors will come up with a different way to accomplish the same and better, or they will license the technology."

    But that's where it all has gone wrong. It would be OK, or at least tolerable, if it still worked that way, but more and more patents have been allowed for the "idea" of an invention rather than the actual implementation. Because of this, you keep ending up with cases--like Amazon's lawsuits over the "idea" of one-click shopping--where even trying to "come up with a different way to accomplish the same" thing can land you in court. It doesn't matter if you didn't actually steal their "invention" or even developed a similar offering completely independent of theirs, you're still likely to lose because their blanket patent was allowed in the first place.

    Think of it this way. A invention patent is somewhat like a property deed in that they allow you to fence in your property, while still allowing others to claim adjacent spaces. In order for either to work, they must clearly define the bounds of the property in case of a dispute (for patents, this means the specifics of the implementation). The problem with allowing "idea" patents that lack a clear implementation (or any implementation at all) is that they often allow the "owner" to vacate and fence in the ENTIRE block in order to protect their own small piece of it.

     

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  16.  
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    Richard, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 2:35am

    Re: Re:

    "Any empirical data on what the effects of the financial implications for inventors / innovators when there is no patent protection? Any data on the effects on development as a result? It's easy to build a case when you only look at one side."

    Have a look at Boldrine and Levine's book "Against Intellectual Monopoly"

    There is PLENTY of evidence in there....
    Its available for free download here - or you can buy a copy.
    http://www.dklevine.com/general/intellectual/againstfinal.htm

    They study the drug and chemical industries from the mid 19th century through to about 1980. During that period patent protection was different in different countries.

    During the second half of the 19th century the German chemical industry expanded at the expense of the British and French industries precisely because patent protection was at first absent and later weaker in Germany.

     

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  17.  
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    Richard, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 2:57am

    Re: Re:

    "a complete break from the past - let us consider quantum theory compared to Newtonian physics"

    Sorry - as a PhD in Quantum Field Theory I can tell you that Quantum theory was NOT a complete break from the past. It relies heavily on the Hamilitonian and Lagrangian formulations of classical mechanics and on the theory of Quaterions (also developed by Hamilton) which had evolved out of Newton's formulation during the 19th century.
    Similarly Einstein's Special relativity used the Lorentz Transformations that had already been developed (By Lorentz!), whilst his General Relativity used Riemannian generalised geometry that had already been developed (surprise surprise by Riemann but also by others such as Ricci).

    The whole of theoretical Physics has been one long process of building on the works of others (After all it was Newton who talked about "Standing on the shoulders of Giants" - and Guess what - even that phrase wasn' t original - it was already 500years old!)

    Most of the dramatic insights turn out to be re-interpretations of existing formulae giving rise to a deeper level of understanding.

    AND - alll of this progress has been achieved without ANY intellectual property regime whatsoever. The ideas of theoretical physics and mathematics have never been protected by patent or copyright - and we haven't done so badly as a result.

    One last thing ...

    The world wide web came straight out of the physics community - it is a mechanisation of the preprint system that the community had developed over the preceding 20-30 years so it's not surprising that it really isn't compatible with so called "intellectual property"

     

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  18.  
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    Richard, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 3:23am

    Re: Re:What Patents are for

    Patents (and copyrights) are a mechanism to allow the government to reward an individual or corporation by picking the pockets of the rest of the population instead of having to go to the treasury for some cash or to find some piece of land to grant rights to. That is what they were for in the beginning, are now and it seems always will be.

    They belong to the feudal system and have survived into the present age because of the lobbying power of those who benefited from them.
    The most important part of this lobbying has been the smokescreen that has been put up to cover their true purpose.

     

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  19.  
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    Adam Wasserman (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 5:44am

    Re: Re: Re:

    I knew someone would end up correcting me. :-)

    Perhaps it is fair to say that *no human endeavor whatsoever* is a complete break from the past. In which case building on the past can not be the defining characteristic of innovation because logically *everything* would be innovation in that case.

    Which by the way - is pretty much true. Humans are innovation machines. It is what we do, and have been doing since the dawn of time. Most of that time (as you and many others point out) with no form whatsoever of "intellectual property" protection.

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 5:57am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Gee,a nd all this time I thought Amazon used one click shopping, rather than it just being an idea.

     

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  21.  
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    eclecticdave (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 6:17am

    Re: Going back to our TiVo discussion...

    > Without patents, the big guys can block them out by having monopolies

    This is the key. What you're essentially saying here is the little guy needs monopoly control because the big guys already have it. And you're right as far as it goes.

    The problem is this does nothing but make a bad situation worse. The real solution is to not only get rid of patents, but also to rid the world of all these other forms of anti-competitive monopoly control as well.

    Of course, that's not going to be easy! Ultimately I think it will have to happen eventually, but it won't happen until far more people realise just how broken things are at the moment.

     

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  22.  
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    ChrisB (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 6:58am

    Re: Eli Whitney and Copyright

    Being from the oil and gas industry, I understand the need for patents on physical things and physical processes. Patenting non-physical things and things in nature (e.g., genes) should be curtained. Patenting code is silly; the only thing code should get is copyright.

     

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