Ten ideas about Ideas

by Doc Searls

Which has more leverage in the marketplace — A) disclosure or B) secrecy? Which is more supportive of growing markets — A) public infrastructure or B) private platforms? Which is better for inventive entrepreneurs — A) sharing one's great ideas to drive development and adoption, or B) patenting and keeping secret one's "intellectual property"?

I'm sure most Linux Journal readers would answer "A" to each of those questions, plus other questions like them. Yet I suspect that most venture capitalists would rather fund the "B" choices.

VCs may talk about loving open source and free markets and opening code to spread adoption and derive first mover advantages; but in far too many cases they still don't understand the leverage to be found in disclosure, in building public infrastructure, in growing development communities that exceed the dimensions of the paid coding team.

Or course, the entrepreneurs follow the money. "What's your lock-in", the VCs ask, and the entrepreneurs come up with an answer. Or they won't get funded. And the cycle continues.

I bring this up because right now I'm engaged in an email dialog with an entrepreneur who is in exactly this trap. On the one hand, he has an Idea That Will Change The World. He hasn't told me what it is yet (I can already hear the NDA papers rustling), but he says it's in alignment with values I've espoused for years. On the other hand he's telling me, without irony, that he's working with patent attorneys and thinking about how to protect his intellectual property.

So I'm taking a break from the back-and-forth, to practice what I've been preaching. Here are ten ideas I have about Ideas. I think they're good ideas, of course; but I also think they can be improved. In faith that others will improve or replace them, here they are:

  1. Ideas aren't physical. Regardless of the legalities, treating ideas as possessions insults their vast combustive power. Jefferson put it best:
    The moment [an idea] is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
  2. Ideas aren't worth jack unless other people can put them to use.
  3. Ideas won't change the world unless others can improve on them.
  4. Ideas grow by participation, not isolation.
  5. Ideas change as they grow. Their core remains the same, but their scope enlarges with successful use.
  6. Ideas have unexpected results. No one person can begin to imagine all the results of a good idea. That's another reason to welcome participation.
  7. Nobody's going to "steal" your ideas, any more than they can steal your cerebrum. You're the source. Authority over the idea begins with you.
  8. Authority derives from originality and respect. You can't get respect for your original ideas unless those ideas prove useful to others.
  9. There are two reasons other people are going to "steal" your ideas. First, the only people qualified to steal your ideas are too busy trying to get their own ideas to work. Second, they already don't like your idea because it's not their idea. (But if your idea gets traction, maybe then they'll start to respect it.)
  10. In the software world, patents are hand-held nuclear weapons. They may have some deterrent or "defensive" purposes, but they tend to hurt those who use them at least as much as they hurt others. Where would Linux be if Linus Tovalds decided to make it a proprietary OS? Where would RSS, blogging, podcasting or outlining be today if Dave Winer had locked his ideas behind patents?

On the patent issue, two source documents might prove useful. The first is John Perry Barlow's The Economy of Ideas. One excerpt:

Since we don't have a solution to what is a profoundly new kind of challenge, and are apparently unable to delay the galloping digitization of everything not obstinately physical, we are sailing into the future on a sinking ship.

This vessel, the accumulated canon of copyright and patent law, was developed to convey forms and methods of expression entirely different from the vaporous cargo it is now being asked to carry. It is leaking as much from within as from without.

Legal efforts to keep the old boat floating are taking three forms: a frenzy of deck chair rearrangement, stern warnings to the passengers that if she goes down, they will face harsh criminal penalties, and serene, glassy-eyed denial.

Intellectual property law cannot be patched, retrofitted, or expanded to contain digitized expression any more than real estate law might be revised to cover the allocation of broadcasting spectrum (which, in fact, rather resembles what is being attempted here). We will need to develop an entirely new set of methods as befits this entirely new set of circumstances.

Most of the people who actually create soft property - the programmers, hackers, and Net surfers - already know this. Unfortunately, neither the companies they work for nor the lawyers these companies hire have enough direct experience with nonmaterial goods to understand why they are so problematic. They are proceeding as though the old laws can somehow be made to work, either by grotesque expansion or by force. They are wrong.

That was published in March 1994: more than twelve years ago. Yet it remains depressingly relevant today.

The second is Patent Absurdities, which I wrote for Linux Journal seven years ago. An excerpt:

The great irony here is that this utopia [the Net] was not built like an empire, or by people who were, in Walt Whit man's words, ``consumed with the mania of owning things''. It was built like an Amish barn by hackers who made it because they needed it, and it sure wasn't going to come from the old software industry. The result was a second world — one made with code rather than matter — that embodied and expressed the long-overlooked virtues of the first:

No one owns it.

Everyone can use it.

Anyone can improve it.

These principles are so basic, they undermine all efforts to deny them.

The gears of the old patent system can't get a purchase on this new world, even though the Supreme Court decided in 1998 that software and ``business methods'' were patentable. It has been amazing to watch the patent stampede that followed this wacky decision. Thousands of patents were filed to stake out claims in empty space. Now that the first of these patents are getting approved, we're starting to see lawsuits. The Amazon and Priceline suits are only the most familiar ones. There will be many more.

There will also be much garment-rending and teeth-gnashing over the ``threats'' these patents and lawsuits pose to our new ``World of Code''. These new patents are patently outrageous, but they are also futile. Nature will take care of business.

Markets are conversations. You have to talk with them. If you try to command and control them the old-fashioned way, they'll get bored and move on. The rules of Darwin still apply: if you want to evolve, you have to adapt or else you die.

Approaching markets with proprietary intentions — to "own" them, or parts of them — is a fatal mistake. Better to look for how your ideas can make markets. If you do that, you'll get credit for your ideas. And that credit will sell far more of your goods and services than anything you file with the Patent Office.

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