What's Wrong With Competition?

from the can-someone-explain dept

A reader named EmJay wrote in with a snide comment about how we wouldn't write about the following story because it's a case where "copyright and patents made sense." I never understand these sorts of comments. We write about all kinds of cases, and if there were one where an intellectual property lawsuit made sense, we'd be thrilled. It would be an example of the system working as planned: encouraging innovation. That would be fantastic. Unfortunately, EmJay's example is no such thing. It's not an example of the system making sense, but of the system being used to slow down innovation and block competition.

The story involves a guy who started making plastic turkey wishbones for Thanksgiving/Christmas celebrations, so that families wouldn't have to fight over the actual turkey wishbone in the traditional "breaking" of the wishbone. Of course, maybe it was just my family, but I don't recall ever "fighting" over the wishbone. Anyway, the agency Young & Rubicam, which represents Sears, had asked for a sample for possible inclusion at Sears. A year later, Sears was selling a similar plastic wishbone, made by a different company, so this guy sued and won. From the article, the guy says they won on both patent and copyright infringement claims, but that's not true. The lawsuit was over copyright infringement claims only, and Sears made two good points that should have prevailed, in our opinion. First, you can't copyright something occurring in nature -- such as a wishbone. Second, the wishbones that Sears ordered were in different colors and sizes than the ones supplied by the original company.

And, in fact, that's exactly how competition should work. Sears pushed another manufacturer to innovate, designing different (and, in their opinion, better) wishbones. That's competition and that's how innovation works. In fact, the guy from the original company now admits that his company didn't do any updating of their design for years while fighting this lawsuit, and are just now starting to update the design. In other words, all copyright did was get these companies locked in a silly legal battle, rather than focusing on providing better solutions to customers. It's too bad this guy was afraid to compete in the marketplace.

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  1. identicon
    Ro, 3 Dec 2008 @ 1:32pm

    I think it is quite fair to consider this unfair infringement of the first guy's copyright. A plastic wishbone is such a stupid idea that if more than one ever turned up in any mode other than prosthetics for turkeys then it is obvious that the second product was just ripping off the first. The second guys don't need the business anyway they are already a successful plastics manufacturer otherwise they wouldn't have been approached to rip off the first guy. The first guy needs all the breaks he can get, as he is the inventor of the plastic turkey wishbone he obviously doesn't have much going for him.

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