Greed kills innovation

I was sitting at my kitchen table, poring over recommendations I’m writing for my client (partially communicative, partially CYA), when I had one of those sudden thoughts: I need tea. While I was drinking my tea — a pomegranate green tea, if you must know — I had one of those epiphanal moments when something becomes radically clear.

Greed kills innovation.

It’s short, it’s simple, it’s sure to raise the ire of a lot of people, but it’s also a major problem we’re seeing lately, especially in internet technologies. It’s a problem that’s dogged humanity for generations. And it’s getting worse.

It’s getting worse because of the pace of technology. There was a time, roughly my current lifetime ago, when there were only a handful of companies engaged in developing technology. They made hardware, wrote the software, and generally all of them hoped things would work. People took ideas from one another, all hoping that they could make it into a better idea. Witness how Apple and Microsoft flourished on an idea from Xerox…

But things changed. Today, we look back on Xerox, and we think: You yutz! You should’ve sued Microsoft blind! Why? Because we all got greedy. It’s not about making things better, it’s about making money.

Patents Gone Wild! See them on the streets of Silicon Valley, beating up struggling entrepreneurs trying to make something good. Or in the Northwest, terrorising established companies for no valid reason. Bringing down entire corporate communications, regardless of impact. Not being able to display a video because the cost is too high.

My problem with all of this isn’t that it’s illegal — it’s not. A patent holder is allowed, by law, to defend their patent against encroachment. My problem is that it happens with increasingly dangerous frequency, often initiated by people who, frankly, have no business holding a patent.

The laws in North America have bred a two-tiered system: those who patent to protect their business, and those who license patents (and quite often end up in big name lawsuits). I know many people in the first group whose companies have pushed them to file patents, to ensure that their business is protected. And we’ve all seen the prolonged battles of the latter.

I fear we’re entering an era when innovation — real innovation, not incremental one-upmanship — will become stifled. The fear of lawsuit and the yawning chasm of bureaucracy needed to protect an idea will become roadblocks. People who might have done well on their own will look at the challenges and say: No, thanks.

Imagine if Steve Wozniak had said that. No, thanks, I don’t want to sell this computer kit to anyone. Or if Henry Ford had looked at his dream of consistently templated automobiles and thought: Who’s waiting around the corner with a lawyer? Page and Brin might have looked at Yahoo! and said: Y’know, what’s the point?

Maybe I’m too altruistic. Maybe because I’ve grown tired at seeing the petty bickering over hundreds of millions of dollars, while reading headlines about mass suffering around the world. Maybe it’s because we’re a decade behind having a viable electric car in widespread use anywhere in the world. Maybe I just want the frickin’ jetpack we’re all supposed to be using now.