Saturday, June 16, 2012

Innovation or Incremental Change?

I quote from "Forget Edison: This is How History's Greatest Inventions Really Happened" by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic.

The world's most famous inventors are household names. As we all know, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone, and Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. 
Except they didn't. The ideas didn't spring, Athena-like, fully formed from their brains. In fact, they didn't spring fully formed from anybody's brains. That is the myth of the lonely inventor and the eureka moment. 
"Simultaneous invention and incremental improvement are the way innovation works, even for radical inventions," Mark A. Lemley writes in his fascinating paper The Myth of the Sole Inventor. Lemley's paper concentrates on the history and problems of patents. But he also chronicles the history of the 19th and 20th century's most famous inventors -- with an emphasis on how their inventions were really neither theirs, nor inventions. Here is a super-quick summary of his wonderful distillation of the last 200 years in collaborative innovation.
I would agree that even disruptive (or game changing) inventions come out of the existing state of technology and depend on improvements to achieve their ultimate value. The article cites the discovery of penicillin as serendipitous, but in fact Fleming was a professional microbiologist able to recognize and isolate the key organism due to his training in a scientific field. Perhaps more important, others licked the difficult problems of mass production of the organism and refinement of penicillin in order to make enough penicillin to actually help people.

On the other hand (as Lemley would agree), some inventions depart more from the state of the art than do others. Indeed, some inventors deserve more credit than others in bringing a technology to the point where it really benefits people. Edison deserves credit not only for the light bulb, but for inventing the industrial research laboratory, for leading in the development of many small innovations that made DC power production and distribution commercially feasible, and for commercializing products and raising public interest in buying those products.

I think that the availability of patent protection for incremental improvements of technology is important to stimulate competition among groups to produce those improvements rapidly. (Remember that Darwin worked for decades without publishing, not getting off the dime until he faced competition for the credit for the theory of evolution.) I agree with Lemley that we are probably granting too many patents, but I don't know how to judge the degree of innovation in a proposal more accurately than is done now (while doing so quickly enough and cheaply enough to accomplish the public purpose).

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