Category: Innovation

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Human Capital, Tacit Knowledge, and the Limits of Intellectual Property

Orly’s ambitious and thought-provoking book covers a significant amount of intellectual ground. She deftly navigates covenants not to compete, nondisclosure agreements, trade secrets, and intellectual property assignments to provide a compelling argument for the free flow of talent in the modern economy. Orly’s work raises a host of questions that space constraints no doubt prevented her from more fully exploring, and I would encourage her to extend her analyses in subsequent work.

One aspect of Orly’s work that I found particularly intriguing is that it reveals a central irony about information. The title of her book is a play on Stewart Brand’s famous phrase “information wants to be free.” While this statement has a contemporary ring, the observation that information is “slippery” and readily appropriable has a long pedigree and has had significant legal and policy ramifications. As Orly notes, Thomas Jefferson invoked the freely appropriable nature of technical information to help justify exclusive rights on inventions. More formally, economists have long characterized technical knowledge as a public good that is nonrival, nonexcludable, and capable of nearly costless transmission. The “slipperiness” of technical information is now largely taken for granted and provides significant theoretical justification for exclusive rights on knowledge assets. Indeed, IP scholars such as Polk Wagner have argued that information’s natural tendency to slip through cracks and build upon itself should alleviate concerns that strict exclusive rights can bottle up knowledge. Information, after all, wants to be free.

Orly’s account of the talent wars, however, reveals that much information does not naturally want to be free. As Orly recognizes, much technical information is tacit and personal to a particular creator or inventor. Such tacit knowledge takes the form of intangible know-how that is difficult and sometimes impossible to codify. Importantly, even when an invention is disclosed in a patent, much valuable technical knowledge related to that invention often remains tacit and is not formally shared. The inadequacy of patent disclosure and the difficulty of transmitting tacit knowledge create a need for companies licensing patents to somehow obtain this information. This is evident, for example, in university patenting and technology transfer, a field that Orly addresses. Empirical accounts of academic technology transfer show that private companies, in parallel to licensing university patents, often seek direct interactions with faculty inventors precisely to obtain their patent-related tacit knowledge.

The tacit, sticky nature of technical information relates to another theme that permeates Orly’s work: agglomeration economies and the importance of place. In theory, patents adequately disclose the inventions they cover, which has the effect of reducing transaction costs in licensing negotiations. Among other implications, such ex ante disclosure should make licensing negotiations less sensitive to geographic proximity; at least with respect to appropriating technical knowledge, a potential licensee should not have a great need to interact directly with an inventor, for the patent itself discloses the technology. However, empirical studies of academic licensing show that licenses tend to cluster around licensor universities. To be sure, a host of factors helps explain such clustering, from universities’ commitment to local economic development to the spatially concentrated nature of professional networks (a theme that Orly also highlights). But the need for faculty inventors to literally sit down with licensee firms to convey patent-related tacit knowledge also contributes to such agglomeration. While some information can be transmitted by reading a patent a thousand miles away, sometimes transferring patent-related technical knowledge requires side-by-side demonstrations of a new technology or that ever-valuable personal conversation over a cup of coffee.

In subtle ways, Orly’s work thus offers a cogent exposition of the limits of patent law and formal technology transfer. In theory, the patent system provides a public repository of technical knowledge from which all can draw in their innovative pursuits. At the very least, licensees themselves should be able to rely on the disclosure of patents to adapt licensed inventions for commercial use. However, much information is not freely appropriable. Even when an invention is disclosed, much information remains tacit and personal to the inventor. Thus, patents are inherently limited as a vehicle for disclosing and transferring technologies, thereby creating a need for much costlier, geographically constrained, tacit knowledge transfer between individuals.

In a broader sense, Orly’s observations highlight an interesting paradox about the “freedom” of information. In the classic economic account, the ease of appropriating technical information represents a problem. This problem is resolved by subjecting technical information to exclusive rights, thus shoring up incentive to invent. However, Orly’s study reveals that much information is subject to a different problem: it is too difficult to appropriate, as it resists formal codification and disclosure. This creates a need for a different type of policy intervention, one that focuses on enhancing the mobility of the underlying sources of information—people—rather than information itself. Paradoxically, the fact that much information is not truly free provides all the more reason that the talent generating that information should be.

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The benefits of being free

I applaud Orly for this excellent contribution.  There is much to praise and much to comment on.  I was particularly attracted to the interdisciplinary perspective of the book and its heavy reliance on and reporting of studies in economics, psychology, and other literatures—including but not limited to Orly’s original research.  The book provides an excellent discussion of various dimensions of innovation studies.  It also provides compelling descriptions of many different real world contexts where the lessons from the academic studies play out on the ground.  The combination is quite amazing.  I also think it is quite important that she focused attention on people, and the human, social and intellectual capital that actually drives innovation across sectors.  Too often, innovation studies lose sight of the actual people involved.  Orly’s book covers so much ground and connects with various topics I’m also interested in.  It is difficult for me to pick a particular topic of theme to comment on in this blog post.  (I’m tempted, for example, to push her to say more about technology transfer offices at universities and how they’ve evolved over time in terms of their approach to control.  I also would like to hear *much* more about the application of commons governance ideas.)  Instead, I’ll say something about the broad ambition of the book.

Orly presents the book as new wisdom – a “dynamic model” — to challenge conventional wisdom – the “orthodox model” – about the necessity of strict control over talented employees, ideas, and various other complementary resources that drive creative and innovative progress and economic growth.  I think the book does a wonderful job of pointing out the many ways in which theoretical and empirical work across many fields of inquiry combine to challenge if not completely undermine the conventional wisdom.  Controls on the flow of ideas and employees often backfire and are costly to the firm and the public.  Orly describes very well the substantial benefits – benefits all too often ignored or assumed away – in sustaining the freedom to operate, to move, to experiment, to tinker, and so on.  She effectively makes the case for a much more nuanced approach to thinking about innovation and the various ways in which freedom (to operate, to move, to think, to experiment, to ride, etc.) impact innovation and social welfare more generally.

That said, I don’t think the book supplies a fully formed alternative vision, theory or model about what degree of control/freedom may be needed to sustain innovation.  The Goldilocks nature of the problem, which Orly describes, surfaces throughout, and it is hard to know where or how to strike the right balances as a matter of public policy (law) and private strategy (corporate practice).  The book at times seems to suggest that it will offer a solution or that the solution might be absolute freedom / no control.  But that is not really what the book ends up saying, as I understand it.  In the end, we remain stuck with the problem of nuance and variety and context- or industry-specific balancing.  Frankly, I don’t think this is a bad result at all; it’s probably where we need to be if we’re basing our judgments in reality.

For some reason, I was surprised when the book ended.  I wanted more.  I expected more.  In a sense, this is a good thing because the book provoked me to think about and look for more.  But I wonder whether the final part of the book could have tied the themes together a bit more tightly and at least proposed a research agenda for developing a more nuanced approach to innovation.  Many of the pieces of the puzzle are in Orly’s book.  But the puzzle remains incomplete.

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Introducing the Talent Wants To Be Free Symposium

Talent Wants to be FreeThis week Concurring Opinions is hosting a symposium on Professor Orly Lobel’s book, Talent Wants to be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding. In simplest terms, Professor Lobel takes on some thorny problems in innovation policy debates including whether to lock down talent and ideas or to embrace the movement of people and knowledge. Though these tensions seem easy to understand, the natural desire to keep what one has means arguments to tie up whatever seems to be giving one an advantage creates larger debates about optimal control and outcomes. Professor Lobel’s work tangles with these core ideas and more.

Professor Lobel is leading thinker on the intersection of employment law, intellectual property law, regulatory and administrative law, torts, behavioral economics, health policy, consumer law and trade secrets as they relate to innovation. She is the Don Weckstein Professor of Labor and Employment Law at University of San Diego School of Law and holds an SJD and LLM fro Harvard as well as an LLB from Tel Aviv University. She is a member of the American Law Institute and the recipient of research grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the American Bar Association litigation Fund, the Searle-Kauffman Fellowship, the Southern California Innovation Project, and Netspar, University of Tilburg. We are honored to have her join us for the symposium as our great list of guest authors engage with her book.

Our line-up of authors include Matt Bodie, Anupam Chander, Danielle Citron, Catherine Fisk, Vic Fleischer, Brett Frischmann, Shubha Ghosh, Ron Gilson, Peter Lee, and Frank Pasquale. We look forward to everyone’s contributions.

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Fight the Power?

Orly’s book is terrific. Let’s just get that straight. The book is filled with the kind of creative energy that Orly’s reform proposals seek to release. But the emerging (or worse, entrenched) fud in me had to react to the celebration of freedom that the book exhorts. Throughout the past several centuries of human history, perhaps through all of human history, appeals to freedom have interrupted periods of dominance, control, and centralization.  “Talent Wants to be Free” is another example of the pendulum swinging away from centralized control. Whether that is a rightward or leftward swing, I will leave for others to sort out.  While Orly does not extol “stealing this book,” the arguments against over regulation by government (in the form of strong intellectual property laws) and against overly bureaucraticized mega-corporations have a Hoffmanesque quality. Of course, nothing wrong with that, but the skeptic in me wonders if unalloyed freedom is unquestionably a good thing.

Orly appeals to competition as an engine of innovation, and she points to many examples that limit the liberating force of competition. The proposition that competition fuels innovation is hard for anyone, in my mind, to contest.  Harder still is understanding what competition is.  Spencerian  renditions of Darwin as applied to social dynamics has been a recipe for disaster and elitism, leading to the very concentration that Orly decries. If competition is meant to guide innovation, it cannot be hard core laissez-faire. Is competition then the nicely diagrammed exposition of Econ 101, channeling Alfred Marshall into prices being driven to MC and minimum AC, profits dissipated, surpluses maximized, or perhaps the more elaborate auctioneering process Pareto optimally? Although an elegant formulation, the technical rendition of the dirty world of markets ignores the details of transactions and transacting, the role of legal rules and of technicians like corporate attorneys, accountants, and bankers. Perhaps  Coase has the right take on competition as a form of endless bargaining and negotiation as social costs and benefits are readily transformed, transaction costs willing, into private ones. I have no doubt that competition drives innovation, but the hard question is what kind of competition.  It is easy, however, to translate competition into unfettered freedom. That translation in my mind does not wholly work.

What is lost in translation by rendering competition as “freedom” is recognizing the need for organization to help free individuals reach their potential. Organization writ large here includes the family, the school, the business entity, and, yes, the state. Freedom without organization is anarchy and anarchy leads to either dissipation of energy into entropy (and yes that is a nod to the ideas of Thomas Pynchon, especially Gravity’s Rainbow in which flights of freedom give way Icarus-like to crashing and destruction) or to dominance and concentration by the powerful (another nod).  Neither is conducive to innovation.

Although Orly makes somes reference to Coase, I felt that there was not appreciation of his “A Theory of the Firm,” which  demonstrated that organization within an entity might be preferable to the freedom of exchange that is a hallmark of competition.  But Coase’s notion of the firm was not supplanting competition, Instead, by internalizing exchange, competition of sorts is brought into the organization as individuals vie for position within the hierarchy.  In this way, Coase is not justifying the Soviet state or centralized planning, both of which are ineffective and in opposition to innovation. Instead, consistent with Orly’s vision of freedom, the Coasean firm internalizes competition but also must confront competition that occurs through exit or dissent in order to avoid the exact forms of concentration that Orly correctly finds as antithetical to innovation.

My point here is that freedom is worthless without some form of organization that provides soil for freedom’s fruit. One example of this is the concern over D2P, a new acronym  a colleague recently assaulted on my overly taxed brain.  It stands for “Distribution to Product” and refers to the difficulty of going from labs to markets. Freedom within the university certainly leads to the creation of all sorts of inventions and new works.  The problem is the lack of institutions for facilitating the movement from the creative stage to the commercialization stage.  That movement is not dependent solely on the freedom of inventor, financier, marketer, and corporate attorney.  Instead such movement is impeded by too much freedom and not enough organization. Perhaps I am just raising dull questions about practical details.  But my point is that extolling freedom without organization may be as big a problem as extolling centralized control over freedom,

I will end with an advertisement for myself.  I have been working on a piece on nonprice competition and intellectual property, and I plan to write it after I finish my articles on the Federal Circuit’s contract law jurisprudence and Holmes’ intellectual property jurisprudence at the Mass and US Supreme Courts. The nonprice competition piece draws on Hirshcman’s theory of nonprice competition from his “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.” Before I expand that piece into 50+ pages, let me try to distill that article-to-be into a few sentences.

Exit and voice serve as ways to promote competition through signals other than price.  Orly’s book provides a vivid and forceful exposition of exit and voice as examples of freedom.  But loyalty is necessary since organizations often act as the incubator for freedom. The problem is that loyalty can quash freedom through acts of provincialism, xenophobia, and blind faith. The difficult balance requires structuring loyalty so as not to supplant exit and voice but to channel those two freedoms into creating dynamic, evolving organizations that promote innovation.  In short, organization without freedom is tyranny, but freedom, without organization, is anarchy, with all its attendant costs.

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Heads Up 3D Printing and more: The Georgetown Law Journal Volume 102 Symposium: “Law in an Age of Disruptive Technology”

Folks,

As you know Gerard and I have been working up our paper Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things . It will be part of The Georgetown Law Journal Volume 102 Symposium: “Law in an Age of Disruptive Technology” which will take place on Friday November 8, 2013. There will be panels about driverless cars and mass surveillance as well. We hope to see many of you there. (RSVP at this link).

It is a great honor to be part of this lineup:

Keynote Address by Professor Neal Katyal

3-D Printing
Chaired by Professors Deven Desai and Gerard Magliocca

Driverless Cars & Tort Liability
Chaired by Professor Bryant Walker Smith

Mass Surveillance Technology
Chaired by Professor Christopher Slobogin

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Upcoming Online Symposium on Professor Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road

Silk Road coverDanielle and I are happy to announce that next week, Concurring Opinions will host an online symposium on Professor Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce. Professor Chander is a professor at U.C. Davis’s King Hall School of Law. Senators, academics, trade representatives, and pundits laud the book for its clarity and the argument Professor Chander makes. He examines how the law can facilitate commerce by reducing trade barriers but argues that consumer interests need not be sacrificed:

On the ancient Silk Road, treasure-laden caravans made their arduous way through deserts and mountain passes, establishing trade between Asia and the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. Today’s electronic Silk Roads ferry information across continents, enabling individuals and corporations anywhere to provide or receive services without obtaining a visa. But the legal infrastructure for such trade is yet rudimentary and uncertain. If an event in cyberspace occurs at once everywhere and nowhere, what law applies? How can consumers be protected when engaging with companies across the world?

But will the book hold up under our panel’s scrutiny? I think so but only after some probing and dialogue.

Our Panelists include Professor Chander as well as:

Paul Berman

Miriam Cherry

Graeme Dinwoodie

Nicklas Lundblad

Frank Pasquale

Pierluigi Perri

Adam Thierer

Haochen Sun

Fred Tung

And of course

Danielle Citron and I will be there too.

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What Are the Limits to What Hackers Produce?

I’m writing this from an airplane somewhere over the US-Canadian border. I forgot my copy of Coding Freedom at home, and was cursing my ineptitude. But then it occurred to me that, given the subject, I could probably find a copy online. Sure enough, I downloaded a pdf via the airport wifi. (For free! – those Canadians…).

This, in the most mundane of ways, is a simple reenactment of what Gabriella Coleman writes of so compellingly in her new book. Gabriella, inspired no doubt in part by her years of exposure to hacking culture, struck a deal with her publishers. The resulting CC license gives all of us who might want to read the book more freedom to do what we want with it – read it on any device, search it, and even pull it up in an airport so we can file a nearly-too-late contribution to a terrific online discussion. Gabriella didn’t know I’d forget my book at home when she decided to negotiate the license. But she did have the sense – I assume – that she needed something more than copyright law to help her achieve what she wanted from her book. Which was in part to give to the rest of us more freedom than standard copyright law would allow.

But how far does that freedom go? This is surely one of the most important and interesting questions about this new form of making software, and the new legal forms that attend it. So that’s what I want to focus on here. One of the book’s great strengths is the spectacularly detailed and clear-eyed account that it provides of hacker culture, or at least a certain hacker culture. As it points out, this is a culture that is built upon a deep commitment to the pleasures of technology (like Ed Felten, I loved the bit on hacker humor), a ferocious conception of self-help and meritocratic ordering, and also to an overt aversion to things “political.”

As a few others have in the course of this discussion, I wonder too about the limits of a form of practical revolution that starts here. How far can this new mode of production take us, if it is characterized by technoelitism, an aversion to politics, and by a subject position that is decidedly fairly privileged and high-skilled? After all, you can’t be part of this crowd and lack access to a computer and internet connection, or be bereft of free time.

 

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What Drives Innovation? The State

Magazines like The Economist mock industrial policy while piling praise on the private sector. But the more one knows about the intertwining of state and market in health care, defense, telecommunications, energy, and banking, the less realistic any strict divide between “public” and “private” appears. Moreover, even the internet sector, that last bastion of venture capital and risk-taking, is more a creature of state intervention than market forces. As Mariana Mazzucato argues:

Whether an innovation will be a success is uncertain, and it can take longer than traditional banks or venture capitalists are willing to wait. In countries such as the United States, China, Singapore, and Denmark, the state has provided the kind of patient and long-term finance new technologies need to get off the ground.

Apple is a perfect example. In its early stages, the company received government cash support via a $500,000 small-business investment company grant. And every technology that makes the iPhone a smartphone owes its vision and funding to the state: the Internet, GPS, touch-screen displays, and even the voice-activated smartphone assistant Siri all received state cash. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency bankrolled the Internet, and the CIA and the military funded GPS. So, although the United States is sold to us as the model example of progress through private enterprise, innovation there has benefited from a very interventionist state.

VC’s and other financiers exaggerated their role in promoting innovation in order to get capital gains tax breaks. And while they retreat ever further from taking risks on game-changing advances in productivity, the tax breaks endure, starving the state of the revenues it needs to continue subsidizing innovation. The California Ideology gradually undoes its own material foundations, but its adherents are unfazed. They are content to reap the benefits of past decades of government investment. From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, seed corn is the tax-cutters’ favorite meal.

X-Posted: Madisonian.

The “Markets” for Top “Talent”

IncomeGrowthThe stories we tell ourselves about inequality matter. As incomes of the top 0.1% and top 0.01% grow ever more stratospheric, “low wage workers are paid less now than they were from the 1950s-1970s.” Is this just, as Steve Schwartzman suggests, the natural consequence of globalization? Tim Harford suggested as much in the FT last week:

The uncomfortable truth is that market forces – that is, the result of freely agreed contracts – are probably behind much of the rise in inequality. Globalisation and technological change favour the highly skilled. . . . [A]t the very top, winner-take-all markets are emerging, where the best or luckiest entrepreneurs, fund managers, authors or athletes hoover up most of the gains.

The most important word in that paragraph is “luckiest.” What deserves comment is Harford’s argument that “freely agreed contracts” are deciding who is “hoovering up” the most. He elaborates a bit later:
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Tumblr, Porn, and Internet Intermediaries

In the hubbub surrounding this week’s acquisition of the blogging platform Tumblr by born-again internet hub Yahoo!, I thought one of the most interesting observations concerned the regulation of pornography. It led, by a winding path, to a topic near and dear to the Concurring Opinions gang: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally immunizes online intermediaries from liability for the contents of user-generated content. (Just a few examples of many ConOp discussions of Section 230: this old post by Dan Solove and a January 2013 series of posts by Danielle Citron on Section 230 and revenge porn here, here, and here.)

Apparently Tumblr has a very large amount of NSFW material compared to other sites with user-generated content. By one estimate, over 11% of the site’s 200,000 most popular blogs are “adult.” By my math that’s well over 20,000 of the site’s power users.

Predictably, much of the ensuing discussion focused on the implications of all that smut for business and branding. But Peter Kafka explains on All Things D that the structure of Tumblr prevents advertisements for family-friendly brands from showing up next to pornographic content. His reassuring tone almost let you hear the “whew” from Yahoo! investors (as if harm to brands is the only relevant consideration about porn — which, for many tech journalists and entrepreneurs, it is).

There is another potential porn problem besides bad PR, and it is legal. Lux Alptraum, writing in Fast Company, addressed it.  (The author is, according to her bio, “a writer, sex educator, and CEO of Fleshbot, the web’s foremost blog about sexuality and adult entertainment.”) She somewhat conflates two different issues — understandably, since they are related — but that’s part of what I think is interesting. A lot of that user-posted porn is violating copyright law, or regulations meant to protect minors from exploitation, or both. To what extent might Tumblr be on the hook for those violations?

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