Friday, June 16, 2006

The Challenge in Executing an Idea

This morning I read Bruce Schneier's latest piece on about a contest for who could come up the most frightening "movie-plot" terrorist attack concepts. People came up with no shortage of ideas, ranging from terrifying to outlandish. Some criticized him for publishing the
concepts, arguing that he was giving the terrorists ideas. His counter was intriguing, and seems to have implications beyond security. He retorted that ideas are cheap (as evidenced by all the entries), and that it's actually executing them that is the challenge. The difficulty in doing, whether because of obtaining funding, conducting training, and providing logistics all while maintaining operational security when intelligence services are doing their best to root them out, explains why we have not seen more terror attacks in the U.S. It's a pretty convincing argument and makes you wonder how many actual terrorist plot have failed or been foiled because of mistakes in execution.

This argument, that ideas are cheap and execution is costly, is much more broadly applicable than just security. In particular, it is very relevant to the arena of intellectual property. Our patent system is based on ideas alone, disregarding execution entirely. I could come up with some simple but novel idea, patent it, and then sit on the patent and avoid the cost of execution. Then, I wait for someone else to come along who wants to put up the investment to execute on that idea an license it to him for a fee or threaten a lawsuit. Even if he came up with the idea independently, I still own the patent. He does all the work making it into a marketable product, while I sit back and collect a royalty. Change this story slightly to where I buy up patents instead of come up with them myself, and you get the patent troll business model.

If you alter the focus of the patent regime to the execution instead of the idea, it begins to appear more reasonable. In many ways, it becomes more like copyright. The idea is ignored, it's the executed product that is copyrighted. I could write code that implements a standard algorithm. I copyright that code and I can sell it without fear that someone will simply copy my code and sell it too. They could put in the work of implementing that algorithm themselves and sell a competing product. But I have the advantage of being first to market, and they have to put up the investment, same as I did. You could even apply that thinking to physical devices. It's not the concept that is owned, but the physical design. While this would seem difficult to judge, it would basically be done the same way plagiarism is judged. And it would certainly be simpler than trying to figure out who is violating a vague and expansive patent, as many seem to be.

We all want to have the next great idea. But ideas are cheap, and when not implemented, ideas are worthless. It takes money, time, and effort to turn an idea into a viable product. The execution is where the real value lies.


At 11:19 PM, Blogger rob finn said...

Danny, I posted a similar meme...


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