3 September 2012 - 3:39 pm

When is an innovation not an innovation?

When it comes to technology, I’m not what you’d call brand-loyal.

USE has very kindly provided me with an iPad for working whilst out and about and by gosh, is it useful.  The smartphone that I have for personal use, on the other hand, is one that runs on Google’s Android operating system.  The PCs I use both at home and at work are Windows-based (well, technically the one at home is dual-booting as my husband occasionally dabbles with Linux, but you’d have to ask him about that…).  If I had to state an absolute preference in terms of interface, I’d probably plump for Android over Apple, but it’s very much a personal thing.

Some rights reserved by sucelloleiloes (Flickr)

Anyway, I’m digressing somewhat from the point of this blog post.  That point being ideas – and what constitutes an original idea, a stolen one, or one merely ‘inspired’ by something that’s gone before.

I’ve been pretty interested in the Apple versus Samsung patenting case currently being played out in the US.  Now, I really don’t wish to slip too much on the big pile of legal worms that this particular can has opened, but it did make me think.  I wondered, as others have done, whether many current patenting systems in the developed world are actually stifling of creativity and innovation, whether they might, in fact, encourage competitors to think differently about design, and whether the consumer is a winner or a loser in all of this.

In the academic world, we always – quite rightly in my view – impress on students and researchers not to plagiarise; to correctly attribute the works of others and reference correctly, and not pass someone else’s ideas off as your own.  This seems pretty fair to me.  The point is, you can certainly be influenced and informed by the ideas and research of others – it’s virtually impossible to have a context and starting-point for your own research without being so – but their influence must be clear to the readers of your work.

In the arts world, artists or performers pay royalties to other artists or performers if their work uses excerpts from, or shares very clear similarities with, an earlier piece of work (in music, this is the case unless a sample of another artist’s recording is less than a particular length – which varies from country to country).

The same is true, in principle, with patents – if you are clearly deemed to have used an idea patented by someone else, you pay royalties to the originator of that idea.

When it comes to some areas of science and technology, however, I think the picture is a whole lot less clear.  You could argue that technology evolves so fast nowadays that it’s virtually impossible for any patent licensing system to keep up, without the ‘originator’ of an idea resorting to retrospective legal action.  You could also argue that there are so many problems out there just crying out to be solved, that waiting for all the legal (and by default, the financial) mess to be untangled before you innovate means, potentially, being left behind.

But are these arguments valid?  Or is it a straightforward case of “it’s my idea; you nicked it; you should pay”?  The difficulty with new technologies is that it’s often difficult to prove who came up with an idea first.  What do you think?


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  • About the author

    Anna Nibbs

    Howdy! I'm Anna, an Enterprise Education Developer, HEA Fellow, member of the National Enterprise Education Award-winning USE Academy team, and the first point-of-contact for academics in the Faculties of Arts & Humanities and Medicine, Dentistry & Health. I also teach on USE's "Making Ideas Happen" module. I'm passionate about learning and teaching, and empowering lecturers - and students - to be as enterprising as they can possibly be. Outside of work, I like to exercise, write, grow fruit and veg, drink tea and spend time with my children reading books, doing crafts and exploring. If you're an academic and you want to know more about embedding enterprise into your curriculum, visit our Enterprise Education website at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/enterprise-education