If you look into the history of innovation, you realize that it's all built on the works of those who came before. The single biggest key to innovation is to try to do something better than what's already been done. There's a great book by Robert Friedel that highlights this called A Culture of Improvement
. This is seen quite a lot in the software world, certainly. In fact, it's quite common for people to try to improve someone else's software, just to make it better. Take, for example, the massive success of Greasemonkey
scripts to allow people to improve on others' websites. However, in this age of pervasive misunderstandings about the purpose of intellectual property laws, many people take offense to the idea that someone wants to improve their work, as we've seen in cases where people have tried to build better front-ends
for confusingly designed websites. It gets even trickier when it comes to "improvements" that conflict with business models. There are still some people who think that Firefox's AdBlock extension is "stealing,"
for example. And, remember, that the folks behind Kazaa flipped out
about Kazaa Lite, a version of their software, which stripped out
all the spyware included with Kazaa. These all seem to fall under the heading of "felony interference with a business model"
which is the concept formerly called "competition."
Now a similar case has appeared in China, but with more dire results. There's apparently a very popular instant messaging client called QQ, from a company named Tencent, that has a few annoying characteristics. A computer scientist in China created a modified version called Coral QQ that got rid of some of those problems, including adding some features that Tencent charges for. For doing so, the guy was recently arrested for intellectual property violations
. The company has been fighting with him for years, previously having filed and won a copyright infringement case against him (for which he paid the fine). However, as his software kept getting more and more popular, rather than taking it as a message that perhaps the company should improve QQ and get rid of annoying features, Tencent instead filed charges with the police, who arrested the programmer. As the folks at Against Monopoly point out
, this is yet another situation where the concept of intellectual property is being used to hold back innovation (and put someone in jail for improving a product).