How are IP rights presented to budding entrepreneurs? I had another enlightening glance at the answer to that question quite by serendipity over the weekend. While taking a walk on the IIT-B (India Institute of Technology Bombay) campus, I passed signs for "The Entrepreneurship Summit 2012". The conference was put together by ECell, which seems to be a student-initiated entrepreneurship group that enjoys IIT-B faculty support. It also had various high-profile sponsors, including Nokia, CNBC and ESET. I introduced myself, explained what I was doing on campus, and the organizers graciously invited me to come in. I eagerly accepted the offer and took in part of the afternoon sessions.
Of particular interest were the talks by James Beach, co-founder School for Start-Ups and a serial founder of successful businesses, and Mr. De Neef f. Each speaker seems to be prominent in his field and each had come quite a distance to take part in the program, Mr Beach from the U.S. and Mr. De Neef from Belgium.
The the two speakers seemed to agree on very little (said Mr. Beach, you don't need to be creative to be an entrepreneur, it's all about finding an opportunity and executing, while Mr. De Neef emphasized the importance of creativity as a linchpin in the innovation enterprise). What they did agree on, each in his own way, was on the unimportance -- bordering in irrelevancy -- of IP.
Let's start with Mr. Beach. His message was clear and succinct. Not only is creativity irrelevant ("Ï have never had a creative idea", I think he said), but copying is good, he stated and restated. Granted, he seemed to be referring to the copying of "ïdeas", but at no point did he mention IP. A self-styled salesman, he maintained that entrepreneurship is all about execution--anyone has it in him to be a salesman too. While I have to believe that Mr Beach would counsel against trespassing on the IP rights of others, the reason is wholly pragmatic--to do so would interfere with execution of the venture. Except for that, IP was nowhere to be found in his rousing 45-minute address.
Mr. De Neef was described as an engineer by training; his words were about the future. In his view, the digitized future will have the following interrelated characteristics. First, copyright will cease to exist (at one point he also included patents, although he was less dogmatic on that). Secondly, ownership of intellectual property will be irrelevant; indeed, it seems that the very notion of intellectual property as property will be outmoded. Thirdly, all content will be free. He referred to his teenage child as a example of a consumer of digitized contents with the expectation that they will be available without cost. Fourthly, creation will all be about collaboration (presumably, in his view of the brave new collaborative world, copyright, ownership and even copyright itself will cease to exist).
There are a couple of different ways to look at this. The fact may be that, in Mr. De Neef's brave new world, IP and especially copyright, will largely disappear and there is not much that anyone dealing with copyright can to change it. Sooner or later, copyright as we know it, or indeed, copyright at all, will cease cease to exist. Or it may be the case that IP still has a central role to play in the discourse about entrepreneurship, but we have not yet found a way to package the narrative in a rhetorically effective manner. Or it maybe that the terms of the discourse are distorted; not every new business is a start-up, much less a hi-tech start (although social media seems a particularly ripe candidate for the "death of copyright")--"real start-ups and real entrepreneurship" will continue to rest on IP. Or it may be that IP is simply too narrow a term; the proper focus should be on innovation, whether or not it falls under the category of subject matters that enjoys IP protection. Whatever view you choose, the fact remains--whether by design or omission -- that IP is simply not part of the entrepreneur's (and our potential clients of the future) set of considerations as he develops its business.
Students at an elite school such as IIT-B can be expected to create "real start-ups". Even for them, however, IP is treated as a matter of only marginal importance. Since none of us know what the future will bring for IP, I would have thought that the best we can do for prospective entrepreneurs is to enable them to be aware of the various possible outcomes and to reach an informed decision. As an IP community, we do not seem to have succeeded.
There is one more aspect to take into account. In an environment where the IP aspects of many kinds of content may decline or disappear, a premium will then be paid for control of distribution and the harnessing of network effects. In such a world, with copyright on the way out and patent law being forced to re-create itself to adjust to the collaborative model of invention, trade marks will only increase in importance. Goodwill and trust in products and service will become perhaps the most valuable form of IP asset, partially by default but partially also due to the changed circumstances.