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
    Richard, 28 Aug 2009 @ 2:57am

    Re: Re:

    "a complete break from the past - let us consider quantum theory compared to Newtonian physics"

    Sorry - as a PhD in Quantum Field Theory I can tell you that Quantum theory was NOT a complete break from the past. It relies heavily on the Hamilitonian and Lagrangian formulations of classical mechanics and on the theory of Quaterions (also developed by Hamilton) which had evolved out of Newton's formulation during the 19th century.
    Similarly Einstein's Special relativity used the Lorentz Transformations that had already been developed (By Lorentz!), whilst his General Relativity used Riemannian generalised geometry that had already been developed (surprise surprise by Riemann but also by others such as Ricci).

    The whole of theoretical Physics has been one long process of building on the works of others (After all it was Newton who talked about "Standing on the shoulders of Giants" - and Guess what - even that phrase wasn' t original - it was already 500years old!)

    Most of the dramatic insights turn out to be re-interpretations of existing formulae giving rise to a deeper level of understanding.

    AND - alll of this progress has been achieved without ANY intellectual property regime whatsoever. The ideas of theoretical physics and mathematics have never been protected by patent or copyright - and we haven't done so badly as a result.

    One last thing ...

    The world wide web came straight out of the physics community - it is a mechanisation of the preprint system that the community had developed over the preceding 20-30 years so it's not surprising that it really isn't compatible with so called "intellectual property"

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