Intellectual Property and Innovation Streams

In the Hutong
Busy week ahead
1948 hrs.

Ryan Block, Editor Emeritus of Engadget, offers a fun little post about innovation at Qualcomm spark.  His lede is provocative: he notes that even though Edison patented the light bulb, he didn’t invent it. An Englishman named Joseph Swan patented his in the UK first.

Thomas A. Edison, knockoff artist and patent troll? Hardly. Anyone familiar with the story of what Edison had to go through to create a practical light bulb, brilliantly recounted by Jill Jonnes in her excellent Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World

The incandescent light bulb
The incandescent light bulb (Photo credit: Anton Fomkin)

will likely agree that Mr. Edison had at least as much right as anyone to his patent, especially when you include his painstaking work on finding the right element for the filament and industrializing the invention. (Even Swan admitted as much.)

Edison deserved his patent, but the most important lesson from Edison and the light bulb is that he didn’t sit back on his duff and try to extract royalties as others improved the technology. As Block notes:

Better still: only a few months after Edison received his patent, he’d already moved on to the next iteration, which increased the bulb’s life a thousand-fold. The story of Edison and his light bulb isn’t just a story of invention; it’s about the invariable trajectory of progress.

I want to take Block’s point a step further. Our intellectual property protection system in the west is focused on protecting inventions, to the point that the IPR bar has all of us thinking about how to protect each and every incremental innovation in the process.

For the most successful innovators, however, what is important is not the increments, but the stream of innovation. There is value to protecting your work, but that should never detract from the effort to continually out-innovate oneself. Due respect to Nathan Myhrvold, the future does not belong the the companies who hire more lawyers than engineers. If there was a resounding lesson from Oracle’s loss in court to Google, it is this: those who focus on defending the status quo more than building the future will have the future taken away from them.