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.
Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: cargo cult, copycats, copying, design, innovation, iphone, jeff veen, patents

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. icon
    Matt (profile), 27 Aug 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?

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.