Ideas Belong To Everyone

October 23rd, 2008 | Open Source

Intranet Prototype from 2000Ideas are funny things. A single good idea can change your entire life. In fact, a good idea can change the lives of many, sometimes millions. I’ve always been stunned by the notion that we, as a culture, decided to create an institution that allows a single individual to “own” an idea.

I must admit that this notion of being able to exploit an idea, at times, inspired me to come up with something clever enough to profit from. That attitude did not last very long. It didn’t take much time to notice that ideas seem to crop up in multiple places at about the same time. I’ve had what I thought were original ideas only to either hear someone else tell me about “their” idea or to even see someone successfully execute it.

With the Internet, this is even more pronounced. All I have to do is search for an idea to see how many other people are already on top of it. Lemme run through a few examples.

A few years ago I came up with an idea for a bike pump. I attached a small compressor to the bottom of my mountain bike. I powered the compressor via a sprocket. The sprocket was aligned such that you could pull the chain over it to “engage” the compressor. In the event of a flat on the trail, you could flip the bike over, engage the compressor, and peddle backwards to run the compressor. By using the giant crank shaft provided by the bike itself, running a small compressor is much easier than operating one of those tiny hand pumps most mountain bikers carry now.

After I had my prototype built, I heard about Google’s patent search. Even though I couldn’t find my product anywhere, I found many patents like this one. My idea, as it turned out, was far from original.

As another example, in the late 90′s I started using a term to describe an aspect of Web development. The term I used was Information Architecture. It slipped out one day and felt right, but I couldn’t recall hearing it elsewhere. A month later I noticed one of my employees had added the term to his resume. The term is now commonly used. Somehow, I don’t think I invented the term – at the very least, not alone.

Sometimes the next step in some direction is simply intuitive. Rarely are ideas created in a vacuum. Often times, ideas are the combination of other recent developments. In other words, an idea often seems to suddenly form in a lot of minds at the same time because the pieces of that idea recently appeared.

Around 2000, my team and I were discussing internal based web tools that would help our productivity. The result of that brainstorming was a prototype interface; I’ve attached a screenshot of that interface to this post. While adding a Facebook App to my Google start page this afternoon, I realized that the overall interface wasn’t entirely unlike what we came up with some 8 years ago.

It seems clear to me that the layout is an intuitive way to solve many problems. As a team, we may have been blessed with some of that intuition. However, I see no reason why that endows anyone to exclusive rights to an idea.

I extend that thinking towards patents and copyrights in general. Having worked in creative industries, I’ve accepted a great deal of intellectual property rights. That does not change the fact that I firmly believe we can build a happier and healthier culture around the notion that ideas should belong to everyone. Knowledge should be shared, not treated like a limited resource.

My motivation is simple – the promotion of healthy and uninhibited innovation. I understand the value in protecting a small business with a big idea from being copied and then crushed by larger well established businesses. Perhaps, in this case, the problem isn’t property rights so much so as having significantly large businesses??? Regardless, when you get away from commerce and simply look at technology, you can clearly see where owning an idea hurts innovation.

Consider browser technology. That interface we designed in 2000 wasn’t really viable without stronger Javascript support – AJAX in particular. That was 8 years ago. Those in the industry likely remember a phase when Netscape basically died and shortly after – Microsoft stopped innovating with Internet Explorer. It wasn’t until Firefox came on the scene that we started to see Internet Explorer start to evolve again. Once Microsoft had complete control and ownership over the browser market, innovation stopped happening.

This is why I so strongly support the open source community. This is why I believe open source will be a constant changing force in our culture and society.

I believe that ideas belong to everyone.

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