Last week I read Seth Godin’s blog and the idea he has for solving the NFL lockout. It’s quite simple and striking:
“The solution: While the lockout/strike/dispute is going on, keep playing. And put all the profit/pay in an escrow account. Week after week, the billions and billions of dollars pile up. The owners see it, the players see it, no one gets it until there’s a deal.”
Shortly after reading Seth’s entry, I was watching Kristi Dosh’s sports economy column on Sports Buzz on The Pulse Network , where she was speaking about the lockout and economic implications. As I thought there was a good match, I tweeted a link to Seth’s article to Kristi. She thanked me and re-tweeted it.
Instantly, a conversation on the topic kicked off between Kristi and one of her followers, Scott B. Here’s a transcript (simplified):
Scott: “Actually that idea was STOLEN from Harvard Professors Sebenius and Wheeler. Published in NY Times 10-30-94. Seriously, Seth should be embarrassed for stealing their idea and passing it off as his own. #Plagiarism101 Expose him!!”
Kristi : “Send me the original”
Scott: “I came across this in reading Negotiation Genius by Malhotra and Bazerman. They give credit to their fellow HBS colleagues. Sebenius, J.K and Wheeler, M.A. (1994, October 30). Sports Strikes: Let The Games Continue. New York Times, 3, 9.”
Kristi : “It wasn’t so revolutionary to make me think this guy was first person to say it…but as long as he didn’t take it word for word”
Scott: “It may not be word for word, but it’s close. He could have at least given credit to the two professors. Very uncharacteristic.”
Kristi : “Just seems like an idea anyone could have thought of without having read the Harvard professors.”
Scott: “Perhaps; maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. It just didn’t pass my smell test.”
Very interesting. First of all, Scott is right in his assessment that Sebenius and Wheeler wrote pretty much the same idea Seth just posted seven years ago in the N.Y. Times. They even went a bit further and described the variation of giving some of the money from the escrow account to charity in case it takes too long to reach an agreement, so definitely Seth’s idea wasn’t new. But is it plagiarism?
I like Kristi’s reaction that anyone could have had the idea even without reading Sebenius and Wheeler’s article. And maybe Seth didn’t read the article. Maybe he did seven years ago and didn’t remember it. Or maybe he did.
Whatever, Scott’s initial reaction is the one we’ve all been conditioned to: Someone copied an idea – “STOLEN” (in capital letters) – “Expose him”!
Ideas represent a potential economic value for the person who had the idea. Sometimes it is even referred to this person as the “owner” of an idea. That’s how patents work: Someone has an idea and he is granted the exclusive right to exploit it. If you get the patent for a new kind of medicine, I am not allowed to sell a such medicine without your acceptance (license). That’s the direct way: Using the content of an idea.
The indirect way is not to use the content of the idea, but the idea as such: In areas where the exploitation of the idea is less direct, like in academia, where having great ideas only helps to sell yourself (improve your reputation, sell more books, receive more bookings as a speaker, …) it is normal to mention the original ideator in order to give her the options to market herself. Or at least to feel good.
In theory this sounds fine. In practice, there are two issues: You have to be aware that the idea you just had isn’t new and you have to know who had the idea first. That’s where the trouble begins.
Fifty or so years ago, when someone filed for a patent say for a new machine, the field was still rather easy to analyze. He maybe went to a library for a day or two and read what was published in that particular field. In most cases he probably already knew which companies and engineers were working in the same area, so he could check their works first. After a relatively short search, he could have been quite confident that his idea was original.
Today, things are different. The same engineer would not know who is working on the topic, as there are probably too many that have these capabilities, and they can be anywhere – not only in the US or Europe, but also in Korea, China or Brazil. Also, there are a lot more patents available and companies are using them for strategic reasons as well. There are patent databases that can help our imaginary patent owner to find out if someone was faster than himself, however unless you’re an expert in using them or speak 20 different languages fluently it’s still a tough one: The amount of information is just overwhelming.
Now if we leave the field of patenting and take a more general view point, the advent of electronic data storage, multiplication and transfer lead to an exponential increase of available information. And without realizing it, we have adapted to this.
We have put up a couple of strategies to cope with the overwhelming amount of information that we are confronted with. Some of these are automation, prioritization, a lower level of detail and faster forgetting of information.
Automation means that we try to outsource the selection of what information we process to technology: If you google a certain topic, the result on the first page will most probably get more of your attention than those on page 42. Obviously, this goes hand-in-hand with prioritization: We don’t try to look at all information in a given field, we select based on headlines, referrals from others, etc.
However, we not only prioritize when choosing the sources of information, we also prioritize within these sources: In many cases it’s not about the details anymore, it only about understanding the general idea. And finally, given the enormous amount of information that we are facing, we have to constantly make room for new information, so we tend to forget previously processed stuff, thinking that in case we would need the details again we could always try to retrieve them.
It’s good that we do all of this as otherwise we would just be completely overload and not capable to be productive anymore. Yet, it creates a problem that we haven’t found an answer to yet:
There’s a fast growing discrepancy between the amount and level of detail of information we all can pull from our brain and the amount and level of detail of information stored somewhere in databases, networks, articles, social media, etc.
Creativity is the act of coming up with something new. Scientists that analyze creativity however found that the knowledge, experience, pictures, influences, etc. one has have a strong impact on their creativity. Some even go as far as to say that there are no original ideas as they all combine something that’s already there.
Now if we have more things with a lower level of detail inside our head, we all should be able to come up with a lot of creative ideas, even if we don’t know where the inspiration came from. Or we may think an idea we just had is original even though it isn’t our idea and we just didn’t remember we read it somewhere. I know this situation and maybe that’s also what happened to Seth Godin and “his” escrow account idea.
That’s where the discrepancy mentioned above comes into play: The individual that had an idea doesn’t feel like the idea was coming from somewhere else or already existed before and therefore puts a limited amount of effort into checking if it existed before publishing it. But the collective memory is different. Individuals that have saved the particular information (like Scott in our example), search engines, etc. can do a better job. And they will.
Where will this lead?
I believe we are standing at the crossroads: Either we continue like we do it today. The wisdom of the masses will expose more copycats – whether they wanted to copy or not, more German ministers will step back because of a plagiarism affair and Apple and Samsung will continue to sue each other for patent infringements I(feel free to continue the list).
Or we change our view on the repetition of ideas.
I was once speaking to the CEO of a creativity consulting company who told me how they come up with thousands of ideas or inspirations in every project. I asked him if they would store the unused ideas for later projects. He laughed at me and told me. “No. We come up with new ones. Why store old ideas if creating new ones is so easy?”
In a world of shortening product life cycles, of fast copying of products and services, of instant flow of information – isn’t the value we attribute to an idea too high? Are our standards outdated?
An idea doesn’t create any value – its implementation does. So if an idea will not be implemented, the best thing that can happen to the idea is that it inspires someone to have a new one. And in a way, the same is true if an idea is copied: If Seth Godin’s “repetition” of the escrow idea leads to its implementation, that probably wouldn’t have happened without him.
So there are two possible positive effects of an idea: It is implemented or it inspires someone. Now what about the ideator?
When looking at implementation, the ideator always has a huge advantage: Only she decides when to share the idea. Now when the ideator goes for the implementation, I am fully in support of finding a way to protect her as she is putting up a risky investment. If not, it’s time for a reality check: An idea is just an idea. Coming up with new ones is easy. When it’s communicated, the ideator can profit from that communication. After that its purpose is to inspire. Therefore, the more it is spread, the better.
Insisting on not copying or correctly citing the source then basically only has the goal to satisfy the ego of the ideator. That sounds pretty hard for anyone creative, but it’s the bottom line.
However, it would be ignorant to ignore our egos and their importance, yet I tried to explain why I believe always citing the right source cannot be done. So here’s a compromise: Why don’t we all just try to approach this topic in a more relaxed way:
Instead of shouting “Expose him!!”, why don’t we just accept that in most cases, not indicating the original source is something that the author didn’t do on purpose and that mentioning the original source and maybe a link to it is something that helps the community of readers as it gives an additional context to the idea and supports the author by doing something he wasn’t able to. By the way: That’s what Open Source and Creative Commons is about: Improve what you like from others.
And from the authors I would expect to also reduce the weight of their ego. If we just acknowledge the possibility that someone else might already have come up with what we just found, what’s wrong with it? We may still inspire others. Why don’t we just ask and motivate our readers that in case they found a similar approach somewhere else to link to it? I believe that doesn’t dilute our point, it helps spreading it.
Let’s make it happen: So from now on, whenever you read something here on businessgametime.com that reminds you of something you read somewhere before, don’t feel like mentioning it would be a negative act towards me. On the contrary, please write it as a comment and let us all know about it. Thank you!