IP and Entrepreneurs: Going, Going, Gone

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).

This is not the first time that I have commented on the virtual absence of IP in presentations that are made by leading figures speaking before elite audiences of budding entrepreneurs (see here). I have looked assiduously for recurring examples in which IP is presented as a material component of an entrepreneur's plan. Not only have my searches come up short, but the opposite seems to be true. IP (save perhaps mention of the need for patent protection) is simply not part of the young entrepreneur's prospective skill set.

 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.
IP and Entrepreneurs: Going, Going, Gone IP and Entrepreneurs: Going, Going, Gone Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, January 30, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. It is notable that the investors on the BBC Dragon's Den often home in on the IP position since that it was makes for a competitive advantage, and that the entrepreneurs are often either completely unable to answer or have been misled by patent agencies. I don't understand how someone can claim creativity as their selling point and then fail to protect their creation.

  2. I think the problem is that for large parts of the population - including many young entrepreuners - the idea of IP enforcement has fallen into disrepute and they have a almost visceral dislike of being 'one of those people' who rely on IP. In the IT world entrepreneurs are almost desparing in some circumstances; believing that almost any product or service they attempt to launch is likely to fall foul of a software patent protecting some (seemingly obvious) concept. Others watch the extension of copyright terms or seemingly draconian enforcement (A Youtube video of a friend's six year old daughter dancing in the back garden was taken down because of the music which you could could just hear playing on the CD deck) with disbelief.

    The overall effect is to poison the well and make a certain type of person feel that IP protection in general is a tool only used by large, vested interests desparate to strangle innovation at birth.

    Not a view I subscribe to, but one I understand.

  3. One of my You Tube videos was flagged as potentially infringing copyright. I knew full well that this was possible even though no damage is being done to the copyright holder. I wasn't interested in wading through the copyright act (it is helping block those very cold draights we are experiencing this week) so I posted 'at risk'.

    So, what happened? Am I writing this from my prison cell or a friend's computer because mine was confiscated along with my internet access? Well, no, it is still there and all I received was the following email:

    "Dear xxxx,

    Your video, xxxxx, may have content that is owned or licensed by UMPG Publishing.

    No action is required on your part; however, if you're interested in learning how this affects your video, please visit the Content ID Matches section of your account for more information.

    - The YouTube Team "

    I'm not expecting men with brown envelopes or sledgehammers at the moment but I hope to keep you posted on developments.

    The work in question is background music to a child's dance video as above and was likely flagged up because the title of the video is that of the song. Another video was not flagged possibly because the video title did not match any protected music track. I wouldn't be particularly bothered if the video was removed so I don't really see a problem with such copyright enforcement. If the copyright holder is really that bothered to waste resources on this then good luck to them. There are many videos of the band in question that have been posted so this particular (large) music publisher must have a more lenient policy and can see the advertising and fan-based benefits of such work.

  4. Never heard of these guys. Not even big hitters in the world of Start-ups just self-publicists. Now if people who knew what they are talking about espoused these views then it would be worth thinking about this for more than 5 seconds.

  5. Anonymous

    Thanks for the observation. I would be delighted to be pointed in the direction of heavy-hitters in the start-up world who have expressed a different view on IP. Any leads would be most welcome.

  6. Does any reader remember a presentation to a CIPA meeting in Bristol some years ago by a Dr Winter(I think). He was first a professor of physics and then a venture capitalist, at the interface of money and start up technology. In that latter capacity he told us that naive investors derive encouragement from a patent portfolio, but that such a portfolio is no more than a "comfort" blanket (unless of course the start up is in chem/bio).

  7. Honestly, There's no such thing as an original Idea nowadays. Mind you, I highly approve of IP rights, I'm actually a viral advocate of it, it's my start-up conversation when I'm introduced to someone who's on par with my lifestyle. Anyhow, as I was saying, there's no such thing as an original Idea in the 21st Century, you can only improve what was done before. Or if Copyright is the case, then the one who advertised their products better, wins. But this is a broad topic, there was a debate about it at a certain Business School Entrepreneurship. The conclusion was, there's no way to filter or stop mass theft through product imitation that are currently being done by some countries. The scale is too big to be controlled by authorities.


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