Researchers: Copying And Imitation Is Good For Society
from the it's-damn-important dept
When we talk about intellectual property issues, many maximalists on both the copyright and patent side of things have this inherent sense that “copying” is “bad.” Not just “bad,” it’s downright immoral. You hear words like “freeloading,” “parasites,” “pirates,” “thieves,” “copycats,” etc. Yet, time and time again, when we look at industries or societies where there is less (or no) intellectual property protection, we notice something interesting: while there is definitely a lot of copying going on, it hasn’t proven bad for overall innovation, and at times it’s been shown to be very good for overall innovation. When we’ve talked about things like the chemical industry in Switzerland in the late 19th century (which was not covered by patents), there were certainly many chemical companies who focused on copying — but there were also many who were quite innovative, and the overall impact to the economy was very strong.
The same is true if we look at the fashion industry, which does not have copyrights. It thrives without copyright protection in part because of all that copying. The copying serves a few very useful functions: first, it helps “perfect” the offering, as each “copyist” may improve on it a bit. Second, it helps diffuse the new idea throughout society, by offering it up in many places and ways that the originator was unable to. Third, it offers an element of price differentiation (the wealthy want the original/official version and pay more for it, others want the cheaper knockoffs). Fourth, it actually helps to validate the original idea (if there’s a knockoff, the original must be cool). Finally, it stimulates additional brand new creativity from the original creator, who must realize that he or she cannot rest on any laurels, and needs to get to work on the next great design.
Copying serves an important function in getting new concepts out there.
And, now some researchers have started to look into it, and actually have built a model that shows society is likely better off when copying is the norm. Aaron deOliveira alerts us to the research on this, which tries to model societies with creators and innovators, and finds that society is served best when 30% of the population is involved in creating new goods, while 70% is focused on copying. Now, you can read through the full research and quibble with the methodology, but the basic premise is sound, and has been borne out in real life, in situations where copying was widely allowed. Hopefully there will be more research done in this arena, to see if this sort of modeling can be refined a bit more to take more factors into account. But, for now, this is a good place to start, and a reminder to those who seem to think that “copying” is somehow bad, that it serves a valuable part in the overall ecosystem of building and distributing innovative offerings.