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The Academy and Fashion -- An Unlikely Pair Teaches Us About Innovation

In the rush to protect our ideas we often overlook the fact that the value of some ideas are most fully realized when they are shared, not kept secret.
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We all love lists. Top 10 hamburgers, the 100 largest companies, best sellers, cities with the worst traffic - you name it, there's a list for it. Last week, the Intellectual Property Owners Association (a trade association for owners of patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets) released its annual ranking of the nation's top 300 patent-getters for 2009. That sparked the Chronicle of Higher Education to report which universities had the most patents; for what it's worth, the University of California system came in at 83 on the list, MIT at 153, Stanford University at 178 - all great contributions that should be applauded.

Patents can play an important role in the protection of intellectual property, absolutely. In business, patent protection can encourage all-important investment. But as Vice Provost for Innovation at the University of Southern California, I'm not sure counting patents is the most useful measure of innovativeness in a university - and maybe not even for industry.

When I think about innovation, I think about new ideas and inventions that have an impact in the world. In the rush to protect our ideas we often overlook the fact that the value of some ideas are most fully realized when they are shared, not kept secret. In the laboratory, in the arts, in the marketplace - shared ideas collide and make better ideas; innovators see them, get inspired, mash them up, and ultimately devise solutions and products that change the world.

This is why I enjoyed seeing something else hit the web last week: a provocative talk on by Johanna Blakley, who spoke at the TEDxUSC "Ideas Empowered" conference this spring. As Johanna points out, most of us assume that without protection there is no incentive to innovate. But clothing designs - along with foods, furniture, magic tricks, jokes, tattoos, perfumes, fireworks, games and automobiles, to name a few - have no copyright protection. Despite this, the fashion industry has developed an ecosystem of creativity and sharing that results in fast innovation and large sales. Much larger, in fact, than the high-IP industries like films, books and music, Blakley hastens to point out.

Ironically, the venue for her talk was an "open-source" phenomenon in its own right. A year ago, USC partnered with the TED conferences to create the first ever independently organized TED conference, TEDxUSC. The event was a huge success and USC helped put together guidelines and best practices for organizers of similar events. A year later, 1,000 events have occurred or been scheduled with an audience of over 100,000 people in over 70 countries around the world. It took a lot of courage and trust for TED to let go of their valuable brand; yet by sharing, they have turned what was once a rarified and exclusive event into a worldwide experience with exponential impact.

So, when we try to measure the innovativeness of a university, company, or region, instead of simply measuring how many patents we're filing, let's also measure how many ideas we're sharing and the impact we're making. Don't get me wrong; we should patent those ideas that need protection to attract investment. But let's count the new products, new businesses, new jobs, and new solutions to important problems.

This attitude may seem strange coming from a person like me, who is responsible for managing intellectual property at a university. But one of the most important inventions academia ever created was the philosophy of sharing; it has been the casual and formal systems of sharing ideas that enable the best innovators to stand on the shoulders of giants. It's the kind of thinking that brought us groundbreaking advancements like the World Wide Web, the Human Genome Project, Linux, and OpenCourseWare.

The results of this philosophy may not be as easily quantifiable as a most-patents list, but it's a whole lot more important in terms of understanding how to make the most out of the world's most valuable resources: human ingenuity and innovation. As the fashion industry has shown us, this sometimes works just as well in the marketplace as it has on the campus.

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