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IP Permeability

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It was in the 1970s that the “Japanese invasion” … of automobiles like Toyota, Honda, and Datsun (now Nissan) and consumer electronics like Panasonic and Mitsubishi … pounded lots of nails into the coffins of America’s complacent manufacturing practices. Depending on the product it took somewhere between a decade and not quite yet for American products to achieve anything like parity in the global marketplace.

As American industry scrambled to regain lost ground, it changed the unwritten employment contract, from cradle-to-grave employment, complete with gold watches given for 50 years of service, to today’s at-will employment and layoffs whose sole purpose is to “send a message to Wall Street” that the company is serious about cost-containment.

A roughly the same time, businesses decided they had to protect their intellectual property.

“Intellectual property” is a phrase with a nice ring to it. It sounds official and important. Businesses invest an inordinate amount of time in mostly fruitless attempts to protect it. It’s property — it’s mine and you can’t touch it.

Also, it’s a concept that’s mostly outlived its usefulness.

The U.S. Constitution in no way recognizes such a thing. What it says is, The Congress shall have Power To … promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

The term “property” makes no appearance. Having an exclusive right to something for a limited time a lease more than a title, and unlike real property rights, copyrights and patents are explained as means to an end: promoting scientific and artistic progress.

Sure, this is academic nitpicking that’s so academic even academics have no interest in it.

Here’s what isn’t academic: The whole idea of patent protection now subverts its original purpose. Rather than promoting scientific progress, patents in their modern form actively impede it. But that isn’t this week’s point. It was the point of “How to fix the software patent system: Get rid of it” (KJR, 7/29/2013). Read it and weep.

This week’s point, taken from what’s probably the most controversial chapter of The Cognitive Enterprise, the new book I co-authored with my colleague Scott Lee, is that protecting your company’s intellectual property is, more often than not, both impossible and a bad idea.

It’s impossible because corporate permeability is a fact. Corporations act as though it was a problem, but it isn’t: Problems can be solved. Facts must be dealt with.

Large-scale corporate permeability probably got its start with the aforementioned change in employment security that resulted in large numbers of employees being pushed out the door. They took all the knowledge they’d acquired with them. It remained intact inside their heads where it was now available to any competitor that had the wit to hire them.

Thus was born the non-compete agreement.

In the era of the cognitive enterprise, corporate permeability has increased by orders of magnitude.

Remember the new formula for success — the one that’s supplanting the old “people, process, technology”? It’s customers, communities, capabilities. This is one reason permeability is a fact.

Back in the era of job security as an expectation, a person’s place of employment defined one of his (or, occasionally, her) most important communities. For some professionals, local associations held monthly meetings and constituted a community as well, but with few exceptions these ranked much lower in a person’s sense of affinity than even the local watering hole where people congregated after work.

Now? Between Facebook, LinkedIn discussion forums, and specialty sites on the social web, the sense of community connecting people with shared interests outstrips any sense of loyalty to an employer. Of course they do: They belonged to these communities before being hired for their current position, and expect to belong to them long after they’ve taken different positions in different companies.

They share what they know with their communities and become more adept at their trades as other members of their communities share right back at them.

Heck, with GitHub they share actual working code, too.

Is some of this valuable intellectual property? Yes it is, and the more it’s shared, amplified, tested, and adjusted the more valuable it becomes.

Community members help each other learn, solve problems, and figure things out. Which is why community is one of the driving forces behind capabilities.

Which is, in turn, why we firmly believe businesses that embrace and take advantage of this evolving permeability will, in the long run, out-compete businesses that distract themselves trying to seal their borders.

Comments (4)

  • Richard Stallman has been smiling a lot lately.
    I’m happy too!

  • The 1970’s also was the beginning of the era where companies began to treat blue collar workers generally and Vietnam Veterans in particular like so much unneeded human refuse who did not deserve to support their family with a single worker’s paycheck.

    But these same companies still wanted to sell ever increasing amounts of their stuff here in the USA.

    Corporate citizenship left, and corporate responsibility was right behind it.

    I agree: Software patents are a bad idea, and I wish the first judge who saw one had sent the plaintiff packing over to the Copyright office which is where they more logically could reside.

  • While I do not know whom to attribute the quote, “I lay awake at night in fear nobody is trying to steal my software.” sums it up.

  • “businesses that embrace and take advantage of this evolving permeability will, in the long run, out-compete businesses that distract themselves trying to seal their borders.”

    You know, this is likely just as applicable to countries as well.

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