Copying: It’s A Good Thing

Tim Lee has a great post not so much defending Google and Android from accusations of “stealing” ideas from Apple and iOS as defending their right to do so. He’s got this exactly right, I think.

The question isn’t whether Google copied some features of Android from iOS (copying, incidentally, that goes both ways). It’s whether we want a patent system that gives the first company to stumble on a basic user interface concept like the graphical user interface or multi-touch tablet computing to have a 20-year monopoly on those concepts.

Copying of business concepts is integral to the “invisible hand” model of market competition. The idea is that firms want to become more profitable. So they think up ways to cut costs or raise prices or increase sales or whatever. Profit! But then other firms look at those ideas and copy them. The result is a Red Queen’s Race. Firms need to be constantly copying other firms’ best ideas just to avoid going out of business. The ultimate beneficiaries end up being consumers, who take advantage of the more/better/cheaper products. Even the lamest, most obvious kinds of copying are good for the world. I remember well when Microsoft unveiled Windows with its “Recycle Bin” function that happened to be exactly the same as Apple’s longstanding “Trash” function. It was slightly offensive to human dignity that they were copying both the function and the metaphor while slapping a slightly different name on it to seem like they weren’t copying. But the world is a better place for it. It’s a good function and a good metaphor, so as many people as possible should use it.

If companies can’t copy each other’s ideas, this doesn’t work. The first movers get to keep their rents, and lawyers extract a lot of secondary income streams as everyone sues each other. Apple should be encouraged to copy Android’s best features (Widgets!) and we should all applaud the fact that Google and its partners have created more-or-less workable multi-touch interfaces. Originality is great, but diffusion of great original ideas is also great. What if Mickey Kaus held some kind of patent on policy blogging?