Category: Technology

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More Patent Fun, New York Times and another DC event

My paper with Gerard Magliocca made the New York Times in a piece called “Beyond 3-D Printers’ Magic, Possible Legal Wrangling,” and the fun continues. With patent reform on the table (pdf to the bill), the New America Foundation is holding a conference called Just How Broken Is the Patent System?. I will be on the kick-off panel with my friend Adam Mossoff. After some jousting over patents, property, and more with the help of Annie Lowery, the day will turn to industry folks, policy wonks, and more professors, to get into health and patents, green innovation, patent assertion, fixes to the patent system, and a keynote by Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission.

It promises to be a fun day. Hope to see folks there.

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Drones, Amazon, Pizza, and More

As I saw that Amazon is tinkering with drone delivery, I thought “How very Stephenson” and that the opening of Snow Crash tracked the idea of 30 minutes or less delivery. Of course, others thought of this connection overnight. And although Fox News hyped the idea as the Senate holding hearings on Amazon and Drones (“Senate to hold hearing to discuss Amazon package delivery drones“), the hearings were already in place as Fox reports. The Amazon glory is icing on the cake of let’s freak out about drones. And, yes, there are reasons to think about drones and what, if anything, should be done to regulate them. In this post I am more interested in the labor issues. Chris Taylor’s thoughts at Mashable get into this question. There are many limits to the tech. But as I wrote before, Amazon strikes me as well-placed to press into new ways to use this sort of technology to reduce its labor needs. Local distribution sites, same day or now maybe within an hour delivery, maybe on-demand printing of books (or 3D things), and Amazon could yet again change shopping. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case about forcing retailers to collect taxes even when they have no presence in a state. Amazon’s response of moving into states and taking on local retailers may prove to increase competition locally and in an ironic twist the idea that imposing taxes would be fair may prove to be what eats at local businesses more than expected.

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Search Engine Objectivity

(This is a guest post from Professor Mark R. Patterson of Fordham Law School. As someone who has participated in panels on antitrust with Prof. Patterson, I thought our readers would be interested in his perspective. –Frank Pasquale.)

pattersonM“Search is inherently subjective: it always involves guessing the diverse and unknown intentions of users. Regulators, however, need an objective standard to judge search engines against.”

The two claims above, from an essay by James Grimmelmann, are at the center of the conflict over regulation of search engines. Some argue that Google is a powerful gatekeeper for competing firms’ access to customers, so that it must operate in an objective or neutral manner to preserve a level competitive playing field. Those who make this argument necessarily assume that we can assess objectivity or neutrality in this context. Others, like Grimmelmann, support the first statement above, arguing that there is no objective, neutral means of assessing search results, so that there is no way to regulate search engines.

The European Commission (EC), having investigated Google’s practices and concluded that there are “competition concerns,” is apparently on the pro-regulation side, because it is entertaining proposed commitments from Google to address those concerns. (The U.S. F.T.C. conducted its own investigation and closed it without action, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that Google’s practices lacked a legitimate business justification.) Google proposed a first set of commitments to the EC in April, but the Commission received “very negative” feedback from a market test of those commitments, so it asked Google for an improved proposal. Last month, Google proposed a second set of commitments. This new proposal was not put to a market test. Instead, the EC sent private inquiries to the complainants in the case and other market participants. Nevertheless, the proposal was leaked, and it offers much food for thought.

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The Dualities of Freedom and Innovation

What a rollercoaster week of incredibly thoughtful reviews of Talent Wants to Be Free! I am deeply grateful to all the participants of the symposium.  In The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity, Anupam Chander, continuing Frank Pasquale’s and Matt Bodie’s questions about worker freedom and market power, asks whether Talent Wants to Be Free overly celebrates individualism, perhaps at the expense of a shared commitment to collective production, innovation, and equality. Deven Desai in What Sort of Innovation? asks about the kinds of investments and knowledge that are likely to be encouraged through private markets versus. And in Free Labor, Free Organizations,Competition and a Sports Analogy Shubha Ghosh reminds us that to create true freedom in markets we need to look closely at competition policy and antitrust law. These question about freedom/controls; individualism/collectivity; private/public are coming from left and right. And rightly so. These are fundamental tensions in the greater project of human progress and Talent Wants to Be Free strives to shows how certain dualities are pervasive and unresolvable. As Brett suggested, that’s where we need to be in the real world. From an innovation perspective, I describe in the book how “each of us holds competing ideas about the essence of innovation and conflicting views about the drive behind artistic and inventive work. The classic (no doubt romantic) image of invention is that of exogenous shocks, radical breakthroughs, and sweeping discoveries that revolutionize all that was before. The lone inventor is understood to be driven by a thirst for knowledge and a unique capacity to find what no one has seen before. But the solitude in the romantic image of the lone inventor or artist also leads to an image of the insignificance of place, environment, and ties…”.  Chapter 6 ends with the following visual:

 

Dualities of Innovation:

Individual / Collaborative

Radical/Incremental

Accidental /Deliberate

Global /Local

Passion / Profit

Art/Science

Exclusive/Shared

Inscribed/Tacit

 

And yet, the book takes on the contrarian title Talent Wants to Be Free! We are at a moment in history in which the pendulum has shifted too far. We have too much, not too little, controls over information, mobility and knowledge. We uncover this imbalance through the combination of a broad range of methodologies: historical, empirical, experimental, comparitive, theoretical, and normative. These are exciting times for innovation research and as I hope to convince the readers of Talent, insights from all disciplines are contributing to these debates.

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Talent Timing Paradox

There is a hidden paradox in Talent Wants to be Free: There is time to lock down, and a time to set free (maybe to sow, reap, and more too). Lobel notes that some work indicates that early stage industries may benefit from lock down. But she also makes the observation that a company locking down talent may be in decline. What can we make of this possible paradox?

I think that it shows how difficult it is for any company or industry to truly innovate. As Lobel notes, when things plateau, talent should be loosened up. Why? I suggest that the old hack of the Innovator’s Dilemma is in play. As a company is used to a certain business there are many reasons it won’t move on to the next thing. And it may not be able to see or be willing to work on the next thing. The folks who are into crazy late night work, start-up adrenaline, and the chance to press the edge of whatever field they are in find that the company has become stale. That may also be an industry. I believe that the convergence of businesses is part of why Silicon Valley companies looked to limit talent movement. They both did not want their core people help competitors build rival services and found that folks may be tempted to move to a seemingly new place. For example, a social network person may have jumped to Google to build Google + if their old firm was stable or a search technologist to Amazon or FaceBook, and so on. The respective verticals may be stale and converging. So the leaders start to find ways to keep labor in place (and probably sneak folks to their outfits as much as they can nonetheless). Is there another option? Sure.

Start a Bell Labs, Skunk Works, or Google X. In the short term at least, some of the best folks may stay and set up the next stage of your company. But as the scenario planning and related literature show, sooner or later the company will fail to turn that work into something. When that happens, some of the talent may be frustrated and leave. Again, the need for the payoff, the we planned for X and delivered X vortex takes hold and down the drain we spin. The upside is that other companies will lurk at the edge of the collapse and pick out the best of the wreckage. The key as Lobel argues is that the human capital be able to picked up. If not, the stalling, collapsing company keeps hold of good folks who might do great work elsewhere.

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What Sort of Innovation?

Professor Lobel’s book raises many questions. That is a good thing. I like books that connect to ideas that have been pinging about my brain and that spur new ones. Talent Wants to be Free does those things. For now, I will look at something that always lurks in this space for me: What type of innovation are we talking about?

I wonder about most discussions about innovation and disruption that focus on the private sector. Something, which for want of better or less exhausted words, we call innovation or disruption occurs at the firm level. But slowing down, we should parse these ideas. Marianna Mazzucuto has done some great work on the way the state is needed and has contributed to the innovations we all celebrate. Again, there are distinctions, as it may be that the work occurs at the state level (basic research), or that the state funded the core research. The counter-punch is that states may make big bets that pay off and they often make big bets that fail. That they fail seems a silly critic (though the linked Economist article makes it). I wonder whether any large institution struggles with two things. On the one hand, placing big bets at all takes bravery and/or vision. And on the other, what parts of the state or private sector carry forward that work is a big issue.

In other words, how much do market incentives skew focus for any of these outfits? Did Bell Labs or Parc do work that Mazzucuto would say was analogous to the state work? I think so. Today is Google doing some of that work? Microsoft Research? Sure. But in what way? The need for short-term payoffs is a problem for the core work that may then be transferred under Lobel’s ideals. Companies talk of moon shots and at the same time want them to occur within a year. Big leaps on the moon take years, perhaps more than a decade, of work to get to the wow moment.

Now it may be that an overall sector leads to great outcomes and breakthroughs, and thus the talent movement within a sector is needed as part of that process. Still I wonder at whether many of the areas the book considers and the issues about talent mobility relate more to applied innovations rather than bedrock work fueling a shift at a national or global economic scale. Remember Schumpeter drew on work that looked at long cycles and breakthroughs in fields that spawned many companies and sub-industries. So although I think it is wise to let talent be free, I wonder about whether that leads to better small steps (e.g., tweaks to phones, social networking, etc.) more than the sort of innovations that spur massive shifts in industry.

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Individuals & Teams, Carrots & Sticks

I promised Victor Fleisher to return to his reflections on team production. Vic raised the issue of team production and the challenge of monitoring individual performance. In Talent Wants to Be Free I discuss some of these challenges in the connection to my argument that much of what firms try to achieve through restrictive covenants could be achieved through positive incentives:

“Stock options, bonuses, and profit-sharing programs induce loyalty and identification with the company without the negative effects of over-surveillance or over-restriction. Performance-based rewards increase employees’ stake in the company and increase their commitment to the success of the firm. These rewards (and the employee’s personal investment in the firm that is generated by them) can also motivate workers to monitor their co-workers. We now have evidence that companies that use such bonus structures and pay employees stock options outperform comparable companies .”

 But I also warn:

 “[W]hile stock options and bonuses reward hard work, these pay structures also present challenges. Measuring employee performance in innovative settings is a difficult task. One of the risks is that compensation schemes may inadvertently emphasize observable over unobservable outputs. Another risk is that when collaborative efforts are crucial, differential pay based on individual contribution will be counterproductive and impede teamwork, as workers will want to shine individually. Individual compensation incentives might lead employees to hoard information, divert their efforts from the team, and reduce team output. In other words, performance-based pay in some settings risks creating perverse incentives, driving individuals to spend too much time on solo inventions and not enough time collaborating. Even more worrisome is the fear that employees competing for bonus awards will have incentives to actively sabotage one another’s efforts.

A related potential pitfall of providing bonuses for performance and innovative activities is the creation of jealousy and a perception of unfairness among employees. Employees, as all of us do in most aspects of our lives, tend to overestimate their own abilities and efforts. When a select few employees are rewarded unevenly in a large workplace setting, employers risk demoralizing others. Such unintended consequences will vary in corporate and industry cultures across time and place, but they may explain why many companies decide to operate under wage compression structures with relatively narrow variance between their employees’ paychecks. For all of these concerns, the highly innovative software company Atlassian recently replaced individual performance bonuses with higher salaries, an organizational bonus, and stock options, believing that too much of a focus on immediate individual rewards depleted team effort.

Still, despite these risks, for many businesses the carrots of performance-based pay and profit sharing schemes have effectively replaced the sticks of controls. But there is a catch! Cleverly, sticks can be disguised as carrots. The infamous “golden handcuffs”- stock options and deferred compensation with punitive early exit trigger – can operate as de facto restrictive contracts….”

 All this is in line with what Vic is saying about the advantages of organizational forms that encourage longer term attachment. But the fundamental point is that stickiness (or what Vic refers to as soft control) is already quite strong through the firm form itself, along with status quo biases, risk aversion, and search lags. The stickiness has benefits but it also has heavy costs when it is compounded and infused with legal threats.

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The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity

In Talent Wants to Be Free, Orly Lobel’s masterfully demonstrates the importance to business, employees, and society at large of workers who are free to move and free to innovate. The symposium this week has seen well-deserved praise heaped on the book from many of the nation’s leading scholars in the area. Lobel, a legal academic, explains the law in a way that non-lawyers (and even lawyers seeking a summary of the law of covenants not to compete, confidentiality agreements, and trade secret) will greatly appreciate.

The shift she describes is part of the larger move from status to contract that has marked modernity—a world in which individuals make and remake themselves. I have myself embraced this model in my own way in my book The Electronic Silk Road. I accordingly find myself entirely sympathetic to Lobel’s prescription. In that book, I describe and embrace the ways that production processes are now splintered across the globe, with global supply chains now including services, not just manufactured parts, supplied in disparate locations. There is liberation implicit in this—on the Internet, no one knows what class or caste into which you were born (though cultural markers are never entirely absent, even in cyberspace). Equally important, it allows individuals in developing countries to participate in lucrative markets in developed countries that would deny those individuals visas.

When I moved to Northern California a decade and a half ago, I carried my Midwestern and East Coast sensibilities with me. When a former student told me he was leaving his job after just one year at one of the leading technology law firms, Wilson, Sonsini, I was not entirely sure this was wise. He joined an important Silicon Valley operating company, and worked there for two or three years. He surprised me by then informing me that he was returning to Wilson, Sonsini. I would have thought that his leaving his law firm after such a short time might have made him persona non grata there, but he returned there certainly a lot more knowledgeable about the needs of the firm’s clients. Wilson, Sonsini clearly understood the virtues of freedom of employees—seeing it not as a sign of instability or disloyalty, but a marker of curiosity, dynamism, and ambition. Lobel would certainly approve, both of the employee and of the employer.

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The Hard Questions about Talent, Market Regulation, and the World of Work

Each in his own sharp and perceptive way, Brett Frischmann, Frank Pasquale and Matthew Bodie present what are probably the hardest questions that the field of human capital law must contemplate. Brett asks about a fuller alternative vision for line drawing between freedom and control. He further asks how we should strike the balance between regulatory responses and private efforts in encouraging more openness. Finally, he raises the inevitable question about the tradeoffs between nuanced, contextual standards (what, as Brett points out, I discuss as the Goldilocks problem) versus rigid absolute rules (a challenge that runs throughout IP debates and more broadly throughout law). Frank and Matt push me on the hardest problems for any politically charged debate: the distributive, including inadvertent and co-optive, effects of my vision. I am incredibly grateful to receive these hard questions even though I am sure I am yet to uncover fully satisfying responses. Brett writes that he wanted more when the book ended and yes, there will be more. For one, Brett wanted to hear more about the commons and talent pools. I have been invited to present a new paper, The New Cognitive Property in the Spring at a conference called Innovation Beyond IP at Yale and my plan is to write more about the many forms of knowledge that need to be nurtured, nourished, and set free in our markets.

Matt describes his forthcoming paper where he demonstrates that “employment” is reliant on our theory and idea of the firm: we have firms to facilitate joint production but we need to complicate our vision of what that joint production, including from a governance perspective, looks like. “Employers are people too” Matt reminds us, as he asks, “Do some of the restrictions we are talking about look less onerous if we think of employers as groups of people?” And my answer is yes, of course there is a lot of room for policy and contractual arrangements that prevent opportunism and protect investment: my arguments have never been of the anarchic flavor “let’s do away with all IP, duties of loyalty, and contractual restrictions”. Rather, as section 2 (chapters 3-8) of Talent Wants to Be Free is entitled we need to Choose Our Battles. The argument is nicely aligned with the way Peter Lee frames it: we have lots of forms of control, we have many tools, including positive tool, to create the right incentives, let us now understand how we’ve gotten out of balance, how we’ve developed an over-control mentality that uses legitimate concerns over initial investment and risks of opportunism and hold-up to allow almost any form of information and exchange to be restricted. So yes: we need certain forms of IP – we have patents, we have copyright, we have trademark. Each one of these bodies of law too needs to be examined in its scope and there is certainly some excess out there but in general: we know where we stand. But what about human capital beyond IP? And what about ownership over IP between employees and employers?

So yes, we need joint inventorship doctrines for sure when two inventors work together. But what about firm-employee doctrines? Do we need work-for-hire and hired-to-invent doctrines? Here we arrive to core questions about the differences between employment versus joint ventures or partnerships between people. And even here, the argument is that we continue to need during employment certain firm protections over ownership. But the reality is that so many highly inventive and developed countries, diverse as Finland, Sweden, Korea, Japan, Germany, and China, all have drawn more careful lines about what can fall under “service inventions” or inventions produced within a corporation. These countries have some requirement for fair compensation of the employee, some stake in inventions, rather than a carte blanche to everything produced within the contours of the firm. The key is a continuous notion of sharing, fairness and boundaries that we’ve lost sight of. Intense line-drawing as Brett would have it that is based on context and evidence, not on an outdated version of the meaning of free markets.

What about non-competes and trade secrets? Again, my argument is that these protections alternate, they should be discussed in relation to one another, and we need to understand their logic, goals, and the cost/benefit of each given that they exist in a spectrum. Non-competes is the harshest restriction: an absolute prohibition post-employment to continue in one’s professional path outside the corporation. This is unnecessary. The empirics are there to support their absolute ban rather than the fine dance that of balancing that is needed with some of the other protections. Sure it makes life momentarily easier for those who want to use non-competes, but over time, not only can we all live without that harsh tool, we will actually benefit from ceding that chemical weapon in the battle over brains and instead employ more conventional arms. And yet, even in California, this insight doesn’t and shouldn’t extend to partnerships. The California policy against non-competes is limited to the employment context. If two people, as in Matt’s hypo, are together forming a business, their joint property rights in that business suggest to us that allowing some form of a covenant not to compete will be justified. There will still be a cost to positive externalities but the difference between the two forms of relationships allow for absolute ban in one and a standard of reasonableness for the other. And yes, as Brett alludes to, the world is not black and white and we will have to tread carefully in our distinctions between employees and partners.

I completely agree with Matt and Frank that there are fundamental injustices created by our entire regime of work law. Talent Wants to Be Free takes those deep structures into account in developing the more immediate and positive vision for better innovation regimes and richer talent pools. Matt writes that a more radical alternative lies within Talent but “deserves more exegesis: namely, whether we should eliminate the concept of employment entirely.” What if people will always be independent contractors?, he asks. The reforms promoted in Talent Wants to Be Free, allowing more employees more control over their human capital, indeed bring these two categories – employees and independent contractors – closer together in some respects. But far more would be needed to shift our work relations to be more “democratic and egalitarian: a post-industrial Jeffersonian economy.” As both Frank and Matt show, in their own scholarship and in their provocative comments here, this will require us to rethink so much of the world we live in.

Frank Pasquale’s review is so rich that I hope he extends and publishes it as a full article. Frank says that “for every normative term that animates [Orly’s] analysis (labor mobility, freedom of contract, innovation, creative or constructive destruction) there is a shadow term (precarity, exploitation, disruption, waste) that goes unexplored.” I would agree that the background rules that define our labor market, at will employment, inequality, class and power relations, are not themselves the target of the book. They do however deeply inform my analysis. To me, the symmetry I draw between job insecurity and the need for job opportunity is not what Frank describes as a “comforting symmetry”. It is a call for the partial correction of an outrageous asymmetry. And yes, as I mentioned at the very beginning of the symposium, I hoped in writing the book to shift some of the debates about human capital from the stagnating repetition of arguments framed as business-labor which I view not only as paralyzing and strategically unwise but also as simply incorrect and distorting. There is so much more room for win-win than both businesses and labor seem to believe. On that level, I think Frank and I actually disagree about what we would define as abuse. I do in fact believe that many of us can passionately decide to give monetary gains in return for a job that provides intangible benefits of doing something we love to do. Is that always buying into the corporate fantasy? Is that always exploitation? Don’t all of us do that when we become scholars? Still, of course I agree with many of the concrete examples that Frank raises as exploitation and precarious work – he points to domestic workers, which is a subject I have written about in a few articles (which I just realized I should probably put on ssrn - Family Geographies: Global Care Chains, Transnational Parenthood, and New Legal Challenges in an Era of Labor Globalization, 5 CURRENT LEGAL ISSUES 383 (2002) and  Class and Care, 24 HARVARD WOMENS LAW JOURNAL 89 (2001)]. Frank describes a range of discontent in such celebrated workplaces as Silicon Valley giants, which I too am concerned with and have thought about how new hyped up forms of employment can become highly coercive. Freeing up more of our human capital is huge, but yes, I agree, it doesn’t solve all the problems of our world and by no means should my arguments about the California advantage in the region’s approach to human capital and knowledge flow be read as picturing everything and anything Californian as part of a romantic ideal.