Is Protecting IP a Thing of the Past?

15 Mar, 2013 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson

Editor's Window: Open your eyes to a future full of opensource design possibilities.

In the design world today, especially in the manufacturing sector, data is staunchly guarded to keep it out of the hands of competitors. Just the thought of a CAD file walking out the door on a thumb drive can keep a CEO awake at night. And why wouldn't it? Intellectual property (IP) is the pillar that supports many a business.

But is that the best attitude for companies that want to survive in a changing world — one that's fueled by the Internet, social media, and free everything?

For example, let's look at another market built on IP: the music industry. For decades, if you wanted to legally own commercially produced music, you had to buy a complete album. Then along came iTunes and the concept of breaking down those albums to sell as individual songs. Efforts to uphold tradition ultimately failed, but the industry did not.

Original music is still valued and protected, but the most innovative minds are rewriting the rules. Singer–songwriter Gotye, faced with an overwhelming number of YouTube videos interpreting his megahit, "Somebody That I Used to Know," did not respond with lawsuits. Instead, he crafted an altogether unique video remix using segments from dozens of those covers, "Somebodies: A You-Tube Orchestra." Not only is the remix an artistic accomplishment in its own right, it's also a great marketing tool that incorporates subtle promos for Gotye's musical tours and web site. Released last summer, the video had amassed 3.75 million views by early this year.

The music industry is fortunate that it was not derailed by its initial resistance to change. The same cannot be said for others. Having done business the same way for more than a century, newspapers did not recognize early enough the potential for the Internet (and later, social media) to bolster the news delivery business. Many succumbed as a result; others survived, but barely, and are struggling to make up lost ground.

And remember when Encyclopaedia Britannica was the go-to resource for researching people, places, and things? That knowledge bank would have been the ideal foundation for building a free, online, community-powered resource. But the traditional publisher didn't see the opportunity in that endeavor — or didn't see it soon enough. Newcomer Wikipedia did, and the rest is digitally archived history.

Among the many entities that have benefited from freely sharing intellectual property are the aforementioned You-Tube, which allows users to incorporate its video content anywhere, expanding its reach and raking in the advertising revenue. Open-source software developers freely distribute their code for others to build on, customize, improve — and share back with the community. The better and more versatile the software, the more customers it attracts, which leads to increased revenues from consulting, technical support, and even sales of third-party plug-ins built on that original code.

Is it such a stretch to imagine that open-source design could be next? How might you prosper in a world where individuals and companies freely share ideas and data — identifying, improving, and profiting from the designs that they believe have the most potential?

We've learned by example that if such a wave is coming, you need to position yourself out front to catch it. You could face an exhausting swim if you let it pass by.

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