Saturday, July 12, 2008

Are Ideas Worthless?

There was a bit of a smackdown from the 37signals blog:

So somebody else built a successful business on that idea you had three years ago. What does that mean? That if you would just have pursued that idea, you would now automatically be enjoying their spoils? Sorry to burst your bubble, but I really don’t think so.

Ideas on their own are just not that important. It’s incredibly rare that someone comes up with an idea so unique, so protectable that the success story writes itself. Most ideas are nothing without execution.

I'd agree on that last point and it's one that's echoed by Paul Graham of YCombinator fame. Coulda, shoulda, woulda gets to be a tired refrain made especially easy for the obvious reason that the best ideas are the simplest ones. With the emerging fight to reform how patents and intellectual property gets awarded, the approach to ideas becomes a more serious one.

Ideas are useful only so much as they innovate and get implemented. It's an ingenious albeit artificial system created by governments. It forces ideas to be published in the public sphere in return for time limited monopolies rather than a dependence on secrecy, or worse abandoning ideas that take time and money to develop and have useful societal and commercial value but aren't easy to hide. The way patents in the US are granted is not the same as elsewhere in the world. Whereas in the US there is a first to invent threshold, in many other parts of the world it's a first to file - which would seem that it can put some firms in the awkward position of ultimately paying royalties to others for inventions that they've created.

Personally, I think good ideas should be patented, trademarked and/or copyrighted (and it's one of the reasons I consider myself to be more of a pragmatic libertarian for limited government interference in markets rather than none at all). While the system is prone to abuse, patents can also be increasingly important in an age where it's easier to outsource further skewing the advantage towards those who have money rather than those who are able to generate great ideas.

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