Usain Bolt doesn't need to hide how he does what he does. That is a real competitive advantage. Josh Waitzkin, of the Art of Learning Project, talks of his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teacher posting videos of himself training on the web. This went against traditional secretive practices of competitors trying to hide what they do until the competition to gain an edge. His view was that he should be good enough to beat someone even if they knew what he was going to do. A real competitive advantage is one that is not fragile. It is not a secret. It is not a thought that will dawn on someone standing in the shower belting out Bohemian Rhapsody.
It concerns people that The Wright Brothers are credited with inventing and building the first successful airplane, but it was William Boeing who really made the cash. The protection of intellectual property, and how much we value an idea, is a cornerstone of what we value as the capitalist system. It irks people that others copy. We want to credit the person whose idea it was.
I am not completely convinced of the overall value of unlimited protection of intellectual property when it is easy to copy. Often the founders don't even know what the technology will be used for - it is the users and the copiers who create a lot of the value.
Twitter is a great example, here Evan Williams describes the original idea:
'With Twitter, it wasn't clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn't replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is. Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility. It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network'
I wonder how different the world would be if we were less afraid. What would happen if companies didn't work in separate offices? What would happen if we were more project based and less scared of telling people what we were working on? If teachers worked with marketing professionals and actors in developing awesome presentations/lessons. If stock pickers published their analysis of a business warts and all and debated them with competitors, clients and the executives. If statisticians were standing next to journalists at the water cooler and able to say, 'Ja, that draft I just saw on your desk is interesting but the number you are quoting is just wrong. Here is a better way of looking at it.'
While being protective of intellectual property does have some value in that it gives the person whose idea it is an opportunity to cash in, perhaps there is more value to be gained in working out loud. Perhaps there is value in completely re-thinking our desire to spend most of our time only with people solving a particular subset of problems. Maybe the solutions to our problems lie in being more open with people with an altogether different approach?