A Case for ‘Open Protection’
By Maxine Horn
In today’s environment, businesses increasingly need new ideas for services and products, as well as ways to present brands or interact with users.
These are not rich R&D tasks. They are creative tasks. Open innovation and the progress it promises needs creative talent.
However, there is a growing assertion that “ideas” are free and bountiful – with no value until they are commercialized. This devalues the very professionals in the creative industries that firms need. It devalues their talents, education, years of in-practice experience and their knowledge and know-how.
We are increasingly leaning to a mistaken view that any one person’s idea is as good as any other person’s. Creatives are being asked to participate with the crowd for work.
But where we have crowdsourcing we also need ethical, trust and permission-based trading around professionally produced ideas. This is a new departure for the open innovation community. But it is needed and needed now.
Without it, free-for-all attitudes place an almost insurmountable barrier to open innovation participation from arguably the most innovative and qualified group in the whole innovation process. And all that is needed to remove those barriers is trust-based, open protection.
Many corporations engage in open innovation by encouraging the submission of conceptual ideas originating from outside their own companies.
Yet they often insist they will only view patent-protected ideas or hold non-confidential meetings with creative people where all ideas are on the table, unprotected.
In a global marketplace where an estimated 70% of all incremental and ground-breaking innovation is not subject to patent protection, how can they possibly hope to exploit innovation properly and respectfully?
And of those ideas that are, or could become, subject to patent protection, most will be worth significantly less – or prove worthless – if developed without consulting route-to-market partners and agreeing co-creation deals.
The reliance on the “public domain” argument as an excuse for idea misappropriation simply cannot continue. The public domain has been unofficially stretched to include one-to-one meetings between creators and potential route-to-market partners – in other words, confidential business meetings and negotiations.
The public domain is exactly what it says it is – public – and includes media exposure, exhibitions, conferences, seminars, social networking sites and other public platforms. To assert that this applies to one-to-one business discussions is a stretch.
Some brand owners are attempting to use open innovation activities such as crowdsourcing as a means to solicit solution-led creativity for their brand, packaging, digital and new product portfolios. As such, some stand accused by the professional creative industries of exploitation.
If an open innovation society is to properly exist (and I believe it must, and soon), then business trading models between professional creators, businesses and investors simply have to change. As of today, open innovation is not truly open, it is merely ajar.
Some professional trade associations are striking back and advising their members not to participate in what is considered by many as lazy and exploitative procurement practices rather than genuine open innovation.
In that context, many believe that crowdsourcing should be constrained to customer/user input, filtered and managed by professional creative industry firms in partnership with brand owners.
Many professional 2D and digital firms earning their living from solution-driven creativity on fees for services currently believe open innovation is a threat to their livelihood and should not be utilized as a creativity procurement model.
Are they right? Well, yes and no.
No, because open innovation activities would benefit significantly from the participation of arguably the world’s most talented creative professionals.
Yes, because the current participation and rewards model lacks clarity and is far too imbalanced and therefore exploitative.
Rewards are often purely PR based or PR plus below market monetary reward. In other words a disrespectful attitude toward creativity while the creator’s time, money and skills benefit the end consumer and bring financial and brand loyalty rewards to the firm.
Open Innovation activities were developed as a means to enable any external party, large or small, to bring their innovative ideas to the attention of corporate firms.
In doing so corporate firms would have the opportunity to select innovative concepts to commercialize, to supplement their own R & D activities and conclude mutually agreeable deals from licensing, royalty, development fees through to outright purchase.
Open innovation activities were not designed to replace traditional procurement of solution-led creativity to satisfy a company’s brand, digital, packaging, advertising and product development needs.
OI should not be used purely as a means to gain hundreds of creative solutions to marketing-based needs unless the opportunity and remuneration model offers significantly higher reward than fee for services, not significantly lower.
In the UK alone there are more than 30,000 creative firms and more than 300,000 freelance operatives including designers of all type, writers, content creators, web developers, engineers, photographers, musicians and so on.
The combined number of micro creative companies and freelance operatives worldwide total a few million.
The two elements freelancers and micro companies have in common is their creativity and their vulnerability in a David and Goliath business environment.
If corporations are to tap into this wealth of creative talent then the vulnerability experienced from concept exposure needs to be significantly reduced via safe, ethical trading policies.
So, is there a business case for ethics?
Generally speaking, individuals and firms in the creative industries do not wish to launch new companies or competitive brands. Instead most wish to co-create and collaborate with route-to-market partners and enjoy commercial rewards on ethical and equitable terms.
They simply desire commercial respect for their knowledge-based ideas, experience and know-how. And they will give more than 100% effort in return.
And this is where open protection can help open innovation reach its full potential.
We need an active debate around the issue of ethical guidelines for an open innovation culture. Amid all the gleeful talk of open innovation crowdsourced product and creative societies we need to pull back on the reigns and ask about trust and permission-based trading.
What does a fully loaded trust and permission based trading culture look like?
It is probably far less complex than people might imagine.
The OI converts need to understand the fundamental difference between technology led “inventive ideas” that can be patent protected and the estimated 70% of user-focused solution-led innovation more commonly associated with the professional creative industries and increasingly, the multi-disciplinary co-creation teams.
Those three groups operate under different remuneration models ranging from fees for services to shared risk, licensing, royalties and IP buy out.
Common to all groups are a requirement for fair rather than exploitative terms and in the case of the non-patent creativity-led groups, a desire exists for non-complex protection and minimal paperwork.
Busy brand owners are most likely to have a desire for the same. Complex reams of legal paperwork hold up or even kills progress whereas an open-protection system under-pinned by a trust based agreement could significantly enhance and speed up progress.
Let the ethics debate begin and a fair trade model dominate idea procurement.
Editor’s note: This article appears in the May 2011 print edition.
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