Protecting Ideas- Is it a Good Idea?

Between Capitalism and Cultural Evolution stands the Innovative Idea… and our inherent human nature to become “the greatest person I can be” prevents us from becoming “the greatest people we can be.”

Please don’t dismiss this as another right-wing/left-wing debate. This is a much bigger issue- and something that we’re all guilty of (myself included). So in the spirit of leaving politics out of the discussion lets talk about the internet.

Namely Twitter, and Facebook.

Our immediate access to information, due to the advent of these internet innovations, makes the “collective us” think as a single mind. Similar to an emergent ant colony we start to react to world events as a group.

I shouldn’t be- but I am– surprised at how many people are following and responding to what’s going on in Egypt, Libya, and the rest of the Middle East. The fact is, its easier than ever to keep up with… everything. News reporters can post videos instantaneously, making “the other side of the world”… feel like… “just around the corner.”

Then there’s Charlie Sheen…

The moment he describes his coke-snorting exploits as “winning” to ABC’s Andrea Canning, it hits YouTube within minutes, it immediately starts trending on Twitter, and the next day you can buy a T-shirt with America’s new favorite slogan on it.

These relatively new internet tools are great for spreading socially-relevant (and otherwise) news quickly but how does it affect things you don’t want people to know about…?

–A drunken racial slur…

–Whether or not you’re wearing underwear when you’re getting out of the limo…

–Or most importantly- your brilliant ideas!

As a writer I am naturally trained to be protective of my ideas. I have had numerous friends stake claim for a new hit show that just started airing as being their original idea. Whether these hold any validity or not, it makes a writer extremely paranoid over his intellectual property.

But lets get one thing straight. The chances of YOU being the first person to think of your brilliant idea is probably pretty slim. More than likely there are dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have had that same finite thought and also failed to execute it first!

That’s what it really comes down to… who gets the idea made first? And that is where Capitalism rewards- not the GREATEST innovator– but the FASTEST innovator!

Most of the time the rest of the world didn’t come up with a full-fledged idea; they probably were exposed to the same information over the internet, on TV, or some other mutual medium, then their brain made some associations, and they suddenly got a little lightbulb in their head- that we’ll call a “hunch” (borrowing the term and the basis for this discussion from Steven Johnson).

As is evident with the amount of crap we see on TV and film these days, as soon as someone gets a hunch they quickly form that into some form of an idea, and whip out a script as fast as possible so they can collect a paycheck and be credited as the “first to come up with that particular idea”.

As Stanley Kubrick says, (paraphrased) “There is no such thing as an original idea- its about who can do it better!”

I like to think that he imagined the same Utopian future I’m proposing here.  What if your single idea could be honed through other, more meaningful, associations…? This is an opportunity to utilize quantity and transform it into quality.

They say big cities are great spawning pools for ideas because the citizens, forced to interact with one another, are constantly exposed to varied stimulus throughout their day. Writing in an isolated mountain cabin may be great for peace and quiet but your closed-network prevents random chaotic elements from entering your mind, which keeps your idea festering in a pool of ignorance.

This is why a lot of the more successful companies have free-think sessions (like Google’s 20% rule where for every 4 hours they work they get 1 hour to themselves), and brainstorming meetings, and open office spaces surrounded by glass walls. This is all in order to open each individual’s network to everyone else’s network so that greater ideas can be created.

The flip side of this is the FBI. For obvious reasons, they have a closed circuit of information so that nothing leaks out; however, they also miss making associations that could prevent more political catastrophes. The problem is they know that even the smallest piece of data- a name, a date- can compromise an entire campaign.

Going back to the writer’s dilemma, even sharing an abridged version of your story premise with your friend who “swears they won’t tell anyone” (why would they- they’re not even a writer) is still harmful…

Low and behold, half an hour later they’re in a conversation with their mailman and they repeat a fraction of what you told them; and all of a sudden something clicks with said mailman…

who, weeks from now, is in a bar and thinks he came up with this great idea for a script and tells a complete stranger…

who tells his mom…

who tells her therapist…

who tells her best friend…

who, of course, works for Spielberg and all of a sudden your brilliant hunch waiting to become a marketable idea has been compromised.

Ah, Capitalism. Its benevolent design was to create competition and, thus, a better product. The problem, however, is with the speed at which these products are produced ultimately compromise their quality. And suddenly, our choices for a movie tonight are… a “crap romantic comedy”, a “crap supernatural thriller”, or a “crap romantic supernatural comedy”.

Imagine how advanced we could be- technologically, culturally, economically– if we opened Pandora’s Box and let our ideas freely associate with one another.

How many times have we seen a new innovation come out where we say “Oh, that’s kinda cool, but wouldn’t it be cooler if it did this?!” By that time its too late for this startup company because they don’t have the capital to restructure their entire business model- or it takes them months, years, to implement.

So someone else branches off of that idea, combines it with another idea, and creates a third, separate entity. Facebook is really an improved version of MySpace, which is really just an improvement on Friendster. And when Twitter first came out I joked “Isn’t that just Facebook’s updating status function with none of the other cool shit?”

Of course I was wrong; its power has since been proven. And each of these steps over the past decade have simply been made by taking one idea and associating it with another.

But what if we shared our ideas on a massive scale…? Not just pictures of our dogs or Charlie Sheen quotes, but our ideas!

Our culture, our technology, our lives could evolve at such a rapid speed. What if we matched up everything a part of our society is in need of with everything another part of our society has a surplus of…? Maybe we could solve all the world’s problems.

Maybe its too idealistic. Maybe its just not practical. The real problem is “who would take credit for those ideas and profit for them?”

Ay, there’s the rub. Everyone wants to be honored and paid for their innovations. And so we protect our limited associations so that nobody else can touch them. Once again, our inherent selfishness keeps us from evolving as a species.

The good news is…

I have done a lot of thinking about this and I have come up with a solution. To be honest, I can’t believe no one has thought of this yet. In fact, it is so obvious it is bound to make whomever claims it rich and famous.

The bad news is… that’s why I can’t tell you what it is.

~ JW