Opinion

"It’s absolutely fine to steal ideas" – if you promise to make them better

9 min read

09 September 2015

Instead of shunning those that steal ideas, we need to chastise those that think it is a problem, says blogger Seth Godin. It is a view widely shared by British scientist Matt Ridley, who argues that the engine of human progress and prosperity has been, and is, "ideas having sex with each other".

Blogger Seth Godin once wrote that that he would never want someone to steal his car. If someone drove away with it, he wouldn’t have it any more – “which is a real hassle”. His identity, he specified, was also not up for grabs.

But his ideas? “Sure, yes, please, by all means, take them,” he said.

According to Godin, the scarcity underlying the industrial economy has pushed us to make a mistake about how we regard ideas. He explained: “If everyone in town comes to my plant and takes a free sample of what I make, I’ll go bankrupt. But if everyone in the world takes a free sample of one of my ideas, we’ll all get richer.”

In the same article, he claimed to have received an email from a reader, who was angry that another blogger had plagiarised some of his ideas. This, he stressed, was not true. Godin is of the belief that the blogger hadn’t plagiarised anything, but had built something new by synthesising ideas and experiences to “invent the next step”.

How dare we criticise an inventor for “stealing someone else’s ideas,” he said. Ideas can’t be stolen, because ideas don’t get smaller when they’re shared – they get bigger.

“That’s one reason why the rise of patent trolling among otherwise upstanding innovators is so troubling,” he said. “The patent troll uses the spectre of long, drawn-out litigation to extort money from completely innocent entrepreneurs. The patent troll is selfish, spinning out untruths for personal profit – he belongs under a bridge somewhere, not on stage or on our bookshelf. The chilling effect of this mistaken understanding of the moral and legal implications of idea theft is huge.

“What patent trolls won’t talk about – because they have no standing and no proof – is the fact that an expensive, bureaucratic patent system does nothing at all to increase the likelihood that new ideas will be created and most important, that new productivity will arise. Patents weren’t developed to protect ideas, but the specific execution of useful innovations. Trolls and their copyright-defending brethren would like to amplify a cultural shift, one that’s left over from the days of Henry Ford and Frank Sinatra. They’d like people to be afraid to steal ideas.”

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We don’t need to shun those that steal ideas, he claimed. We need to chastise those that think that this is a problem. 

Matt Ridley famously pointed out that no one knows how to make a computer mouse. You need the assembled talents of a metallurgist, a plastics specialist, someone in supply chain management, a software whiz, etc. And this is largely down to our habit of exchanging – something he noted was a unique human feature. 

Chimpanzees and killer whales, for example, have culture. But the difference, he said, is that these cultures never expand because there is no exchange of ideas. But why does exchange raise living standards? 

The answer came from one of UK economist David Ricardo’s theory’s in 1817. Adam takes four hours to make a spear and three hours to make an axe. Oz takes one hour to make a spear and two hours to make an axe. So Oz doesn’t need Adam as he is better at both spears and axes. If you think about it, Ridley explained, if Oz makes two spears and Adam make two axes, and then they trade, then they will each have saved an hour of work. And the more they do this, the better Adam is going to get at making axes and the better Oz is going to get at making spears. The gains from trade are only going to grow, so why would want the ability to be limited to one person when it could benefit all in the long-run?

Imagine an axe and a mouse, and ask yourself: “Who made them and for who?” When it comes to the mouse, it was probably made by millions. Ridley suggested that you needed to include the man who grew the coffee, which was brewed for the man who was on the oil rig, who was drilling for oil, which was going to be made into the plastic, etc. 

“But who knows how to make a computer mouse?” he said. “Nobody, literally nobody. There is nobody on the planet who knows how to make a computer mouse. I mean this quite seriously. The president of the computer mouse company doesn’t know. He just knows how to run a company. The person on the assembly line doesn’t knowbecause he doesn’t know how to drill an oil well to get oil out to make plastic, and so on. We all know little bits, but none of us knows the whole.”

This echoes a famous essay by Leonard Read, an economist in the 1950s, who wrote about how a pencil came to be made, and how nobody knows how to make a pencil. And what we’ve done in human society, through exchange and specialisation, is we’ve created the ability to do things that we don’t even understand. 

What happens when you cut people off from exchange? The answer is that not only do you slow down technological progress, you can actually throw it into reverse. An example is Tasmania. When the sea level rose and Tasmania became an island 10,000 years ago, the people on it not only experienced slower progress than people on the mainland, they actually experienced regress, Ridley claimed. They gave up the ability to make stone tools and fishing equipment and clothing because the population of about 4,000 people was simply not large enough to maintain the specialised skills necessary to keep the technology they had. 

“It’s as if the people in this room were plonked on a desert island,” he said. “How many of the things in our pockets could we continue to make after 10,000 years? It didn’t happen in Tierra del Fuego – similar island, similar people. The reason: because Tierra del Fuego is separated from South America by a much narrower straight, and there was trading contact across that straight throughout 10,000 years. The Tasmanians were isolated.”

What’s relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas, and how well they’re cooperating. Through the cloud and crowdsourced world that we’ve created, where not just the elites but everybody is able to have their ideas and make them meet – and “have sex”, according to Ridley – we are surely accelerating the rate of innovation.