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

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Aug 2009 @ 7:15pm


    "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"

    Think about it this way: Without the innovation, what marketplace was the person making? None, because he had no product to bring to market. It would be like saying that the guy who puts the batteries in a remote control is the real innovator in remotes. Marketing at best completes the product.

    So all the other steps in a products life, from the color of the box to the catchy name to the horrible radio jingle are all for not, without the initial product, the promote nothing. Thus the product, not the marketing and not the salesmanship, is what warrant protection.

    "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."

    That is the standard Techdirt line, one that pretty much always makes me giggle. Patents keep innovators from having to compete with themselves, unless they want to, by licensing their technology / idea / product to others. It allows the innovator the time to bring a product to market and to profit from it, without the fear that copycats can take the same idea, replicate it, and compete without the costs of development (time and money).

    Does that keep others out of the market? Well, yeah, that is sort of the idea, no? If others want to be in the market, they negotiate a fee that covers the technology, or they don't (or can't) and they don't enter the market place. It creates a level playing field, perhaps one even slightly more tilted towards the innovator - the rewards for being first.

    As a side note, bringing something to market may mean nothing more than licensing the technology. It isn't always a product on a retail shelf that is "brought to market".

    ".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)."

    Again, rewards for the people who come up with today the solutions to tomorrow's needs. Innovative competitiors will come up with a different way to accomplish the same and better, or they will license the technology.

    Why do you have such a problem with this? All you seem to be doing is sticking up for those who want to copy off of others, regardless of the negative implications for future advances.

    Any empirical data on what the effects of the financial implications for inventors / innovators when there is no patent protection? Any data on the effects on development as a result? It's easy to build a case when you only look at one side.

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