Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Intellectual Property vs. Knowledge Sharing: Who Gains?

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"Professionals" in any field come in two flavors: Knowledge Sharers and Knowledge Hoarders. The hoarders believe in the value of their "Intellectual Property" (IP). The products of their mind must be carefully guarded lest anyone steal their precious ideas.

Photo credit: Linda Bucklin

But let's face it -- if our only "strategic advantage" is our ideas, we're probably screwed. Or as CDBaby's Derek Sivers put in in this post:

"It's so funny when I hear people being so protective of ideas. (People who want me to sign an NDA to tell me the simplest idea.)

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions."

Photo credit: Kathy Sierra

Yes, there are some crucial exceptions, but for most of us, it's our implementation, not our idea that matters. Even those who create something revolutionary are still synthesizing... still drawing on the work of others, and making a creative leap. But even a big-ass gravel-hauling leap is still a leap, not a physics-violating idea that shimmered into the universe from nothin' but air.

  • It's how we apply those ideas.
  • How creative we are.
  • How useful we are.
  • How brave we are.
  • How technically skilled we are.
  • How we anticipate what our users will love.
  • How we learn from the ideas and work of others.

And from our (my co-authors and myself) perspective, it's not about our ideas, it's about what the ideas can do for our users.

Even if we are the only ones to have a specific new and protectable "idea" (unlikely), the moment we reveal it, everyone else will have it too.

The barrier to entry today is way too low to use "intellectual property" as a main advantage.

And all too often, we think we have a unique idea only to find that others are -- independently -- doing the same things.

Photo credit: Tina Rencelj

I've found some wonderful discussions about this on other blogs (by people willing to share their ideas). The following are some snippets from recent and older posts on the topic:

Open Source Creativity from the wonderful-go-read-it-now Martini Shaker Blog for creatives by Jeremy Fuksa:

"I used to work with a creative director who was (is) terribly paranoid about giving away trade secrets or any type of creative advantage to competitors. Now, if any of the things that he worried about were truly proprietary processes or special trade secrets that would be one thing...albeit very tinfoil hat-ish.

But, all these "secrets" he was worried about... anything he was scared about losing control of was freely obtainable information in the first place. It just so happened that others in our area didn't obtain that information as voraciously as I do."

"Case in point: I had an old colleague IM me to refresh his memory on how to add alpha channels into a Photoshop document. This CD got all freaky on me because I was "giving a competitor trade secrets and an unfair advantage."


Photo credit: Brian C

Jeremy's post pointed to another by Steve Hardy's Creative Generalist (another terrific blog). Steve's post linked to Mark Cuban's post, which talks about how Mark believes his "knowledge advantage" comes not from, say, buying, stealing, or inventing some incredibly new IP, but from relentlessly seeking out and consuming the same information that's freely "available to anyone who wanted it."

An Information Management Weblog, by Karl Nelson, has a post titled Open Source Knowledge that includes:

"A few years back a professor I had talked about the shelf-life of knowledge. His point was that information goes stale quickly, especially in the technology world. There isn't much value in keeping it locked away.

The value, in the information and knowledge space, is in sharing what you know."

And finally, Karl references one of my long-time favorites Evelyn Rodriguez. In Open Source Knowledge & Innovation, Evelyn quotes from David Maister's book, "The Trusted Advisor", with:

"The conclusions many advisors draw are that they must be careful about giving away the store...

The truth is, expertise is like love: not only is it unlimited, you destroy it only by not giving it away."

This is not a none-of-us-is-smarter-than-all-of-us thing (which I hate). This is about each of us being smart at different things. Not as a "team", but as individuals with our own self-interests. If I help you, and you help him, and then he helps her, and she helps... and so on, sooner or later someone in that chain-reaction does something I benefit from directly or indirectly.

It works in open-source software, where developers are practicing the idea of "code it forward", and all contributors utlimately benefit (as do the end-users of their work). Why should it be so different for many of the things-that-aren't-code?

It's also brainstorming on an impossibly large scale. And what's the worst that can happen?

A few weeks' back, I gave the closing keynote at Webstock, and I wanted to include slides (and quiz questions) on what went on during the conference. But what struck me the most during the week was how all these professionals gave away so much of their "secret sauce." How they helped their direct competitors -- those fighting for the same clients and jobs--become better.

In the end, I believe, everyone there recognized the benefit we all get in pushing the world forward, one user experience at a time.

And we'll get there a hell of a lot quicker if we stop guarding our knowledge like a jealous lover.

Our success is not about what we think up, but rather who we think about.

Issac Newton said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." That was just fine in a world where knowledge doubled in half-centuries, not mere months. To make progress today, it's more like, "If I have seen further, it is by being thrown up by the mosh pit of my peers." And we all get a turn.

[Related link: Bill Kinnon on The Generous Web. He's been thinking about this a lot lately. I'm a fan.]

Originally published by Kathy Sierra on June 10, 2006
as "Mosh Pit as Innovation Model" on his wonderful blog site Creating Passionate Users

About the author

Photo credit: Wellington Perl Mongers

Kathy Sierra is the coauthor of Head First Java and Head First EJB. She has been interested in learning theory since her days as a game developer. More recently, she's been a master trainer for Sun Microsystems, teaching Sun's java instructors how to teach the latest technologies to customers. Her current gig, along with her partner Bert Bates, is developing and producing the bizarre new Head First series of books for O'Reilly. She's also the original founder of, which came dangerously close to winning a Jolt Cola award last year, but had to settle for the computer equivalent of being the Miss America runner-up (winning the Software Development Magazine Productivity Award instead).

Kathy Sierra -
Reference: Creating Passionate Users [ Read more ]
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posted by on Wednesday, July 12 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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