Ten ideas about Ideas

Which has more leverage in the marketplace — A) disclosure or B) secrecy? Which is more supportive of growing markets — A) public infrastructure or B) private platforms? Which is better for inventive entrepreneurs — A) sharing one's great ideas to drive development and adoption, or B) patenting and keeping secret one's "intellectual property"?

I'm sure most Linux Journal readers would answer "A" to each of those questions, plus other questions like them. Yet I suspect that most venture capitalists would rather fund the "B" choices. VCs may talk about loving open source and free markets and opening code to spread adoption and derive first mover advantages; but in far too many cases they still don't understand the leverage to be found in disclosure, in building public infrastructure, in growing development communities that exceed the dimensions of the paid coding team.

Or course, the entrepreneurs follow the money. "What's your lock-in", the VCs ask, and the entrepreneurs come up with an answer. Or they won't get funded. And the cycle continues.

I bring this up because right now I'm engaged in an email dialog with an entrepreneur who is in exactly this trap. On the one hand, he has an Idea That Will Change The World. He hasn't told me what it is yet (I can already hear the NDA papers rustling), but he says it's in alignment with values I've espoused for years. On the other hand he's telling me, without irony, that he's working with patent attorneys and thinking about how to protect his intellectual property.

So I'm taking a break from the back-and-forth, to practice what I've been preaching. Here are ten ideas I have about Ideas. I think they're good ideas, of course; but I also think they can be improved. In faith that others will improve or replace them, here they are:

  1. Ideas aren't physical. Regardless of the legalities, treating ideas as possessions insults their vast combustive power. Jefferson put it best:
    The moment [an idea] is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
  2. Ideas aren't worth jack unless other people can put them to use.
  3. Ideas won't change the world unless others can improve on them.
  4. Ideas grow by participation, not isolation.
  5. Ideas change as they grow. Their core remains the same, but their scope enlarges with successful use.
  6. Ideas have unexpected results. No one person can begin to imagine all the results of a good idea. That's another reason to welcome participation.
  7. Nobody's going to "steal" your ideas, any more than they can steal your cerebrum. You're the source. Authority over the idea begins with you.
  8. Authority derives from originality and respect. You can't get respect for your original ideas unless those ideas prove useful to others.
  9. There are two reasons other people are going to "steal" your ideas. First, the only people qualified to steal your ideas are too busy trying to get their own ideas to work. Second, they already don't like your idea because it's not their idea. (But if your idea gets traction, maybe then they'll start to respect it.)
  10. In the software world, patents are hand-held nuclear weapons. They may have some deterrent or "defensive" purposes, but they tend to hurt those who use them at least as much as they hurt others. Where would Linux be if Linus Tovalds decided to make it a proprietary OS? Where would RSS, blogging, podcasting or outlining be today if Dave Winer had locked his ideas behind patents?

On the patent issue, two source documents might prove useful. The first is John Perry Barlow's The Economy of Ideas. One excerpt:

Since we don't have a solution to what is a profoundly new kind of challenge, and are apparently unable to delay the galloping digitization of everything not obstinately physical, we are sailing into the future on a sinking ship.

This vessel, the accumulated canon of copyright and patent law, was developed to convey forms and methods of expression entirely different from the vaporous cargo it is now being asked to carry. It is leaking as much from within as from without.

Legal efforts to keep the old boat floating are taking three forms: a frenzy of deck chair rearrangement, stern warnings to the passengers that if she goes down, they will face harsh criminal penalties, and serene, glassy-eyed denial.

Intellectual property law cannot be patched, retrofitted, or expanded to contain digitized expression any more than real estate law might be revised to cover the allocation of broadcasting spectrum (which, in fact, rather resembles what is being attempted here). We will need to develop an entirely new set of methods as befits this entirely new set of circumstances.

Most of the people who actually create soft property - the programmers, hackers, and Net surfers - already know this. Unfortunately, neither the companies they work for nor the lawyers these companies hire have enough direct experience with nonmaterial goods to understand why they are so problematic. They are proceeding as though the old laws can somehow be made to work, either by grotesque expansion or by force. They are wrong.

That was published in March 1994: more than twelve years ago. Yet it remains depressingly relevant today.

The second is Patent Absurdities, which I wrote for Linux Journal seven years ago. An excerpt:

The great irony here is that this utopia [the Net] was not built like an empire, or by people who were, in Walt Whit man's words, ``consumed with the mania of owning things''. It was built like an Amish barn by hackers who made it because they needed it, and it sure wasn't going to come from the old software industry. The result was a second world — one made with code rather than matter — that embodied and expressed the long-overlooked virtues of the first:

No one owns it.

Everyone can use it.

Anyone can improve it.

These principles are so basic, they undermine all efforts to deny them.

The gears of the old patent system can't get a purchase on this new world, even though the Supreme Court decided in 1998 that software and ``business methods'' were patentable. It has been amazing to watch the patent stampede that followed this wacky decision. Thousands of patents were filed to stake out claims in empty space. Now that the first of these patents are getting approved, we're starting to see lawsuits. The Amazon and Priceline suits are only the most familiar ones. There will be many more.

There will also be much garment-rending and teeth-gnashing over the ``threats'' these patents and lawsuits pose to our new ``World of Code''. These new patents are patently outrageous, but they are also futile. Nature will take care of business.

Markets are conversations. You have to talk with them. If you try to command and control them the old-fashioned way, they'll get bored and move on. The rules of Darwin still apply: if you want to evolve, you have to adapt or else you die.

Approaching markets with proprietary intentions — to "own" them, or parts of them — is a fatal mistake. Better to look for how your ideas can make markets. If you do that, you'll get credit for your ideas. And that credit will sell far more of your goods and services than anything you file with the Patent Office.


Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal


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an idea

Anonymous's picture

is there any software give user howto use mouse click to write in terminal... just click sudo and then apt-get.. and then get suggestion what to write...


nyuviu's picture

Dear Doc,
I am right at the point you describe. I have an idea, which I want to promote, to get people involved and make it public property. But I have no idea, where to promote it best. Do you have any suggestion, where to go or to post best - at least to give it a try?

A timeless article with a

flanschen d_e_l_a's picture

A timeless article with a lot of interesting points in it. But best of all is the following paragraph:

"Approaching markets with proprietary intentions — to "own" them, or parts of them — is a fatal mistake. Better to look for how your ideas can make markets. If you do that, you'll get credit for your ideas. And that credit will sell far more of your goods and services than anything you file with the Patent Office."

You're speaking out of my soul. Great article. Thank you!
flanschen d_e_l_a

Good ideas - bad ideas?!

Pharao's picture

Apropos ideas of the army. Most of them has to do with weapons, destroying and killing. New ideas are born every day to improve killing and effectiveness. But maybe one day this "bad" ideas can be very usefull for the human race. Think about the film Armageddon. An atom bomb rescued the earth! What I want to say is, that many ideas are mixed blessings. Bad ideas could be usefull, good ideas could be bad. It depends on who avail himself of them.

There is not only 0 and 1

Thorsten's picture

In my opinion there is much more between A and B. In a perfect world I would confirm to any of your remarks. But in history there are too many examples where "Ideas had unexpected results". You are responsible for your ideas and have to take care when you share them.

Patent Absurdities

Anonymous's picture

Just one thing about the net as you call it...

It has been made by the army and it was called ARPANET.
For further informations please follow this link:


Anonymous's picture

The ARPANET may be the origin of the Internet, but it was not the military that built the Internet into what it is today. If it were, the Internet would be far more limited in scope and impact. Tim Berners-Lee was not in the military and had very non-military reasons for creating the World Wide Web.

You have missed the point in your desire to focus on trivial facts that do not apply to the discussion at hand.

Ideas are not patentable

Doug's picture

Why all the worry about the patenting of "ideas" when, to the best of my knowledge,"ideas" are not patentable and never have been. Software code is not an "idea" although it, of course, incorporates ideas. But so does every other thing ever invented. God forbid that "ideas" ever did become patentable. It would stifle progress more than any other single thing I can think of. Which of us could invent anything whatsoever entirely as a product of our own thinking and no one elses? Every day we take for granted the use, by us, of thousands of other people's ideas. Imagine building a house without using any of the methods, tools or materials that have been used by men over the last hundred thousand years.This entire subject leaves me cold. It is so much like a religous service being held by our new priesthood: Lawyers. Like all religions, it is founded on fear. Why must we all attempt to emulate their anti-social behaviour by playing their paranoid games? Billions are spent yearly by people protecting themselves from lawsuits that are never going to happen and are defendible anyway. Companies should buy a good insurance policy against lawsuits, frivolous or othwise, and give the rest of those billions to the homeless and the hungry.


Anonymous's picture

After reading the article about "Ideas" i can only say, idea is added to other ideas. It is only when it is a new one that it needs recognition, also an idea from an invention, needs to be awarded to its owner; otherwise Einstein would have not been Einstein.

An idea is created over another one until it becomes beautiful, useful, improvable, etc...

I would go for the idea of having someone to be credited for his/hers idea, espacially when this idea generated a good prosperity.

Thank you,

The Unspeakable Intent

Anonymous's picture

I notice that in these discussions of patent, trademark, and secrecy law, no one talks about what, for me, would be the "elephant head in the living room", which is to say, the manipulative intent of such law. Specifically, the intent is to find a way to force other people to pay me money. That's a very simple idea. Forget about the "technology" or the "competition" - just pay me money, or else. As long as I can create and exploit a need or desire or fear by crippling any ability you might have to find and utilize an alternative to my product, I'm in business.

So then, the underlying issue is: "I will force you to pay me money." Any conversation about patent, trademark, or secrecy that fails to address this issue is "foof". There are many unspoken assumptions underlying:

  • "money" is "real"
  • we cannot survive without "money"
  • we must "control" other people to survive
  • other people are "things" to exploit
  • if you have more, I have less
  • there is not enough of anything

That's a worldview. It's not the only useful worldview, but it's a view of a world in which many people live. "Security", "control", "exploitation" vs "sharing", "empowering", "synergy" - that's a BIG worldview shift. Acknowledge the worldview of the audience. A conversation about patents, trademarks, and secrecy is a conversation about that underlying worldview of fear and control.

VC's are in it for the money....

Anonymous's picture

At the risk of being cynical, the business model for most software great ideas goes along the lines of:-
1) Develop great idea
2) Make it available for free/low cost to home/hobbyist market
3) Sell it below cost to early adopter Fortune 500 type corporations
4) Sell it at premium prices to late adopters
5) Once companies are 'addicted' to product, raise prices for add-ons and support because it's cheaper for companies to pay than to change products.
6) Profit....

Any kind of Open Source model breaks steps 4 to 6 since it gives companies an escape route and prices then have to be perceived as being fair by the customer. You then have a cost-plus business model, which can still be profitable, but not at the level VC's want....

oxymoron - "patenting and keeping secret"

Anonymous's picture

It is unfortunate that the author seems to "make patent" (ie; "publicly disclose) either a tendency to careless writing or ignorance of what patents are and how they work. And he does this at the close of the thesis paragraph!

The phrase "patenting and keeping secret" is an oxymoron - to patent is the precise opposite of keeping secret !?!?

Well, if you've ever read

Anonymous's picture

Well, if you've ever read various patents (especially of the software variety), you'd realize that "keeping secret" isn't too far from the truth. They aren't really meant to describe how to do something (even they are supposed to do so in theory). They're meant to stake a claim in idea space in order to prevent other people from doing something similar without going through the patent holder first.

And as far as software goes, patenting something may be just as bad as keeping it a secret. Very few people (if any) are going to pay a license to write software or use a method that is patented. If they happen to know a patent exists on some method, they're likely to avoid it (which is as bad as if they never knew the method existed). Also, people who write software do not look through patents for ideas and methods they can use. If they look at anything, it is other code. Software patents, in effect, are not a form of disclosure. Well, not a useful one when it comes to software development.

However, putting aside my negative opinion of software patents, when I read the statement you point out, I didn't read it as though "keeping secret" was a modifier to "patenting". I read it to mean "patenting" was one thing and "keeping secret" (e.g. trade secrets) is another thing. Patenting software and keeping it secret are being described as roughly equivalent for the sake of his argument. I could be wrong, but even so, I'm sure the author understands what a patent actually is and we shouldn't allow ourselves to be sidetracked from the main gist of his arguments that there may be better ways to build value in companies than attempting to hoard or restrict access to ideas.

Nope. A patent is even

Anonymous's picture

Nope. A patent is even WORSE than simply keeping something secret.

Let's say you come up with RCU (a fairly fundamental idea) on your own and keep it secret. If I'm faced with the same problem, I can still discover the same solution on MY own and use it. The world is a better place for both of us.

If, however, you choose to patent RCU, then even when I discover it completely independent of you, I cannot use it!

"Stealing Ideas"

Mike Warot's picture

As someone with two "billion dollar ideas"... which I can't even GIVE AWAY... I can firmly attest to the power of NIH - Not Invented Here.
Unless you find the right person who has ALL of the skills and experience necessary to grok an idea... you just won't get traction.
Idea#1: Bit Grid could offer the next order of magnitude increase in computing speed.
Idea#2: Bi-Directional compiler... oddly I don't seem to have written this one up yet... I will do it this week.


Venture Marxist's picture

Two comments. First, I think VC's will view this list as naive and "hippy". (Maybe that's fine...) Realistically, would you bet your trophy wife's next plastic surgery on no one stealing your investment's great idea?

(Seriously, as you say in #9, ideas get copied when they show results. VC's want to know why a start-up won't get squashed by some big player once the idea is proven by revenue... not a bad question, really.)

Second, you're missing an important issue: the scope of an idea determines whether it fits into these 10 maxims. Really big ideas... like the Wrights' powered flight, radio, television, HTML/www cannot be brought to market by any one individual. They are far too big. And they are too big to be "stolen." But small innovations can readily be taken to market and readily "stolen". This list fits better with fairly big ideas than it does (or would seem, to a VC).

Ideas, NDAs, FOSS and the rest

Jim "Musenki" Thompson's picture

One of the things I found most liberating when I did Musenki was that I could choose to operate without NDAs, I could talk to who I wanted, about what I wanted without having to first wrap up my thoughts and ideas in an paper wrapper called an NDA.

Some other companies wanted an NDA to protect "their" ideas, but we never asked for one for ours.

No VC would fun Musenki, a) because it was 2001, and between 9/11 and the dot.com crash, money was extremely difficult to come by, and because we had no lock-in, and the partnership self-destructed. There was much to be unhappy about there, but there were also happy outcomes:

- Some people @ Vivato decided that I was well worth having. I'd basically blazed a trail for their early software work Though not all was peace and love at Vivato, it did manage to help me dig out of the financial hole created by Musenki.

- Netgate is essentially an outgrowth of the knowledge and relationships Jamie and I formed at Musenki. Netgate allows me to live in Hawaii, and hack linux and freebsd for embedded systems. Our customers are (mostly) happy too.


Doc Searls's picture

I sometimes insist on signing Disclosure Agreements. "You guys want me talking about this. Believe me, you'll be better off. Really." Doesn't always work, but it does kick the habits off the rails.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

Sole inventor media myth

Anonymous's picture

Your point about it being ill-advised to try and own ideas is a sound one. But I think your points about people getting credit etc is based on the convenient media myth of the sole inventor. Most "inventions" in the software world have evolved from multiple sources, they're not as special as they seem.

"Where would Linux be if Linus Tovalds decided to make it a proprietary OS?"

Nowhere, but Linus only did the kernel, pretty much all the rest is GNU. The open source community would probably be using the BSD kernel instead.

"Where would RSS, blogging, podcasting or outlining be today if Dave Winer had locked his ideas behind patents?"

This is really a counter-case to your argument, in that none of these originated from Winer yet his evangelism has managed to get people to think that they did. (If you must have sole inventors for these, try Dan Libby, Tim Berners-Lee, Adam Curry and Doug Engelbart respectively).

It's a matter of perspective

Anonymous's picture

You make great points but, while they are correct, they are not significant to the people the article is actually targeted at. VC's and Corporations would only see your facts as confusinary* and dismiss them. The myth is a myth but it's needed in order to talk to the people who believe said myth. Get them to understand that Intellectual Property is bad. Then get the facts in.

Joe Klemmer [who can't find the frelling login link and therefor has to post as anonymous]

*Yes, this isn't a real word. Yet. Feel free to spread it around.

Liberty will be rewarded - financially.

Amy Stephen's picture

From purely a "profit motive" standpoint, the reason for disclosure is simple. Web 2.0. Or, for those who believe that Web 2.0 is just a bunch of marketing hooey, then "partnerships."

Technology that makes it out of the next five years will not necessarily be the best "under the hood," but it will be mashable. Broad market acceptance will come through reuse for purposes not intended, reaching audiences the maker had not considered. That is only possible through disclosure and participation of others. Pimp my product. Pa-leeze. Here it is.

Secrecy does not get you an invitation to the dance.

Nice article - this *is* the million dollar open source question. Thanks! :)

Ten Ideas Become Five

p0ps's picture

My first change is to eliminate some negativity and repetition, cutting the list to five. Next, I transformed the statements into the affirmative.

I think this improvement makes the a better beginning of a mini-manifesto.

  1. Ideas belong to everyone.
  2. Ideas are valuable when others put them to use.
  3. Ideas are powerful when others improve them.
  4. Ideas grow by participation.
  5. Ideas have unexpected results.

Further condensation

Doc Searls's picture

Good work.

One thought. Ideas don't belong to anybody. They are ownerless by nature. Claiming ownership of them insults their nature. So I'd suggest...

  1. Ideas are NEA — Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them and Anybody can improve them.
  2. Ideas are most valuable when others put them to use.
  3. Ideas grow through improvement by others.
  4. Ideas grow through participation by others.
  5. Ideas have unexpected results.

What think ye?

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

Further condensation

Anonymous's picture

Hi Doc - p0ps,

As an Open Source advocate I agree with the destination of your thesis. I cannot as someone who has studied philosophy let myself believe that this list is inherently true though - alas. Here is what I believe. I believe that _I_ and those who feel as I do would like to live in a world where people treated ideas in the manner we deem fit but not everybody is that altruistic. I believe that no amount of clever arguing and ethical delineation will convince those who want to own the sun, moon and stars otherwise.

1. Ideas are NEA - If you make a law that says that if you pay enough money in jurisdiction X and fulfill obligation Y & Z then sure the idea completely belongs to you. The fact that it is easy to copy ideas and nothing gets lost in the copying seems to suggest that ideas are NEA. Without capital, a legal system and a patent system this would seem to be the case. As capital is an innovation, so is our legal system (common and civil) and so are our copyright and patent systems. Without getting to starry-eyed and over-simplifying things we have recognise that it's where we draw the line that counts. We have to claw back some space for ourselves verdict by verdict. Failing that we have to create our own commons and a viable parallel industry of Open Source, Formats and Content.

2. Ideas are most valuable when others put them to use - That 'most' is too absolutist again. Try 'more'. this holds true in a patent-ful and patent-free environment so I don't see why it's on the list.

3. Ideas grow through improvement by others - Sounds like a synonym of 2 though this suggests modification rather than use. If an idea is atomic then to modify would be to change that idea as opposed to changing a small bit of a complex structure. I think this is related to what another poster is saying - that we must differentiate between simple and complex ideas in this debate.

4. Ideas grow through participation by others - Surely an amalgam of 2 & 3?

5. Ideas have unexpected results - True, but again, why does this imply that intrinsically patenting software is wrong/evil?

Seriously people - don't get me wrong. I was drawn towards linux almost subconsciously because I could see that in the Microsoft world I could tinker with less and less of the system. Because that is what gets my juices flowing Linux proved to be an eye-opener for me. Once I started reading and discovered that originally all systems came with the source code so the customer could debug stuff when they got into trouble I came to see that this huge proprietary monolith was an aberration. Unfortunately Windows had become so dominant in this ecosystem that it was practically impossible to get employment using the OS I wanted to use. Sadly we seem to be witnessing the same phenomenon in the console space/portable audio space and mobile* phone space. History repeats. The older generation must teach the younger. We must do as Apple and Microsoft do - get 'em hooked young! Get them in school and university - this is a must. We have to lobby and be vocal. More importantly we mustn't use emotive terms such as _evil_. This will perplex people who do not see these issues in an ethical light (Though they most assuredly are). We must say "We feel this way is less broken for a greater number of people. Yes, you might not make as much cash, but that's not our problem." And we must vote with our feet, wallets and also code our way out of trouble.

So sermon over - whaddya all think?

*cell is you must :)

ps: can somebody point me to a definitive list of high-brow science-based reasoning as to why they think software patents are in every case the wrong way to go. All I see is people screaming They're Evil, They're Evil! but never really saying why. (That they might scupper certain Open Source projects is in itself not a valid reason as to why software are always a bad idea...) Thanks - I'm not lazy - I'll do some hunting myself - I've just been putting it off for about 6 years now :(


p0ps's picture

I like your NEA. In most cases, we need say no more.

But, to further emphasize and to encourage, #2, #3 & #4 may be worth keeping. Your latest version of statement #2, is punchier. Your last versions of statements #3 & #4 are better written and nicely paired.

Statement 5 is cautionary, therefore, it probably is wise to keep it as a reminder or disclaimer.

I think the five, as you have them now, are good until another improvement comes along.

Ideas About Ideas Mini-Manifesto Refined

p0ps's picture

A few of us have had a good time kicking around Doc's Mini-Manifesto on the nature of ideas. Over at p0ps blog, Michael Bernstein came up with, what I think is, the best version yet. It is 6 points, but they are in couplets. It's really 3 points, each with a clarifier. It has rhythm, it swings and, for me, communicates perfectly. It goes like this.

  1. Ideas grow by sharing them.
  2. No-one owns an idea
  3. Ideas are powerful when people use them.
  4. Everyone can use an idea
  5. Ideas gain value when others improve them.
  6. Anyone can improve an idea

It's memorable, concise and dynamic. What do you think? Is it usable?

Another iteration

isabella mori's picture

I can't help but throw my hat in the ring, too, although rather late in the game.

Love how we're playing out what you're talking about - improvement through sharing ...

So here's my version:

1. Ideas are not property.
2. Ideas grow by participation and wilt in isolation.
3. Ideas change as they grow.
4. Ideas improve through sharing.
5. Ideas are best when they are put to use.
6. Ideas have unexpected results.
7. Ideas can be used, shared, changed and improved by anyone.

Nice and clean but...

Anonymous's picture

For the target audience of VC's and business investors, the simplicity of your list might be to simple. They like complicated, convoluted, confusing things to read. Clear & simple to them means pedestrian & common and therefor not of value.


Because they're stupid is my guess.

Joe Klemmer [who still can't logon]

How I think about my ideas

Theresa Quintanilla's picture

Here is my idea. Feel free to use it. If you use it before I do--good for you because I always have more ideas than I can handle. I feel very maternal about my ideas--I want them to succeed on their own strength, not by being dependent on me. Ideas come to me all the time, and the new ones are always better than the old ones.

Try Idea Tagging

IdeaTagger's picture

You may want to try Idea Tagging at http://www.ideatagging.com

Is #9 correctly phrased

Bernie Goldbach's picture

I read reason #9 several times and think it reads better in the negative (i.e., There are two reasons why people are not going to steal your ideas.).

I noticed that, too

Anonymous's picture

I'm pretty sure that there is a "not" is missing as well.

Know your neighbour

Offshore Support's picture

Know your neighbour before you share your unique idea to others, over time, inhabitants will come to know each others idea and share with others, thereafter the idea will be not an idea.