How 'Gongkai' Innovation Could Allow China To Leapfrog The West

from the not-necessarily-according-to-the-letter-of-the-law dept

Back in 2011, we wrote about the fascinating culture of “shanzhai” production — Chinese companies manufacturing counterfeit goods that ignore intellectual monopolies like patents. The post drew on insights from the open hardware hacker Andrew “bunnie” Huang, who has been following this world closely, drawing on his first-hand experiences of visiting and using shanzhai companies. In 2013, Huang gave the shanzhai approach to sharing — like open source, but not quite — a name: “gongkai“. In a long and fascinating new post, he explains the background to the term:

[“Gongkai”] is deliberately not the Chinese word for “Open Source”, because that word (kaiyuan) refers to openness in a Western-style IP framework, which this not. Gongkai is more a reference to the fact that copyrighted documents, sometimes labeled “confidential” and “proprietary”, are made known to the public and shared overtly, but not necessarily according to the letter of the law. However, this copying isn’t a one-way flow of value, as it would be in the case of copied movies or music. Rather, these documents are the knowledge base needed to build a phone using the copyright owner’s chips, and as such, this sharing of documents helps to promote the sales of their chips. There is ultimately, if you will, a quid-pro-quo between the copyright holders and the copiers.

This contrasts with the Western approach, where explicit permission to use every patented invention or extract of copyright material must be obtained in advance before progressing further. The resulting “patent thickets” and copyright analogs are a growing problem for complex digital products that depend on multiple technologies built out of small incremental advances, most of which are patented, and which therefore require separate licenses and negotiations. The more flexible gongkai approach offers an interesting alternative. Huang goes on to explore the important differences between what he calls “this fuzzy, gray relationship between companies and entrepreneurs” and the way things work with the Western system:

The West has a “broadcast” view of IP and ownership: good ideas and innovation are credited to a clearly specified set of authors or inventors, and society pays them a royalty for their initiative and good works. China has a “network” view of IP and ownership: the far-sight necessary to create good ideas and innovations is attained by standing on the shoulders of others, and as such there is a network of people who trade these ideas as favors among each other. In a system with such a loose attitude toward IP, sharing with the network is necessary as tomorrow it could be your friend standing on your shoulders, and you?ll be looking to them for favors. This is unlike the West, where rule of law enables IP to be amassed over a long period of time, creating impenetrable monopoly positions. It’s good for the guys on top, but tough for the upstarts.

This “network IP” results in an elevated rate of product innovation:

Chinese entrepreneurs … churn out new phones at an almost alarming pace. Phone models change on a seasonal basis. Entrepreneurs experiment all the time, integrating whacky features into phones, such as cigarette lighters, extra-large battery packs (that can be used to charge another phone), huge buttons (for the visually impaired), reduced buttons (to give to children as emergency-call phones), watch form factors, and so forth. This is enabled because very small teams of engineers can obtain complete design packages for working phones — case, board, and firmware — allowing them to fork the design and focus only on the pieces they really care about.

The fact that many of those products fail, or are “whacky”, misses the key point here: that the gongkai system, with its low barriers to entry, allows experimentation and improvement to be iterated so rapidly that bad ideas fall quickly by the wayside, to be replaced by better ones, until a winning combination is achieved. As patent thickets and copyright maximalism tie up Western companies in fruitless and debilitating legal battles, the shanzhai companies and their nimble gongkai culture may soon emerge as the true heirs of the innovative startups that created Silicon Valley and the Internet before intellectual monopolies started to throttle both.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “How 'Gongkai' Innovation Could Allow China To Leapfrog The West”

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Anonymous Coward says:

“the far-sight necessary to create good ideas and innovations is attained by standing on the shoulders of others”

I seem to remember a similar quote from the 1100’s about shoulders and giants. Made popular in the 1600’s by a famous English physicist.

Now-a-days, fences with gates are built around the giants. With green trolls standing at the gates demanding gold coins in order to ride on the giant’s shoulders.

The saddest part is the trolls didn’t create the giant in the first place. They merely added a few decorations to the giant, built a fence around it, and claimed it for their own.

That’s Intellectual Privilege law summed up using metaphors from the 12th century A.D.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: This is flawed.

Haven’t you read the article? The copying is welcome and encouraged in such system. Besides there is the ‘pioneer factor’. Apple isn’t the leader because they make perfect products, they are the leader because they got a head start nowadays as there are plenty of smartphones from the competition that perform even better than their iphones.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This is flawed.

Yes, the saying would be, “Be first or be best”. The problem is, the first companies don’t always want to be the best. Instead, they prefer to lock up the market with IP and hold it back when they run out of ideas.

Innovation is hard work and companies seem to get tired of doing it. Rather than die, they use their monopolistic position to hold on. While this might be good for the individual company, it is bad for society as a whole.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: This is flawed.

Apple isn’t the leader because they make perfect products, they are the leader because they got a head start nowadays as there are plenty of smartphones from the competition that perform even better than their iphones.

This was true in the early days of the PC era too. Once others got into the game, IBM was way overshadowed by its competitors creating more powerful and nimble machines. AMD CPUs were cheaper and faster than Intel’s, and Dell sold like hotcakes to the masses who couldn’t afford the cache’ of IBM’s name and reputation. Nowadays, Apple relies on its reputation as being “hip” (or whatever that’s called these days), not necessarily “better.”

Old Fart Techie says:

Wasn't this how it was always done?

I remember the days of the first computers, everyone was just trying things. Some worked, some worked for a time, and a lot failed.

I think every industry goes through this. China may be doing it on a larger scale, across more industries, but they are having a lot of social upset at the same time. And with all the engineers and medical people they have been training, I expect tons of new innovations in many fields will start there. Heck, entire new fields may start there.

And in general, the world, and society will be better off. China still has a lot of growing to do, health and safety concerns come to mind, but as they grow a middle class, they will want air you can breathe, and jobs that you don’t leave by jumping from the 10th floor.

Yes, I’m hopeful for the future.

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