Innovation talk: Between a rock and a hard place


Everybody thinks they know the difference between a rock and a stone until they have to describe exactly what the difference is. Of course they’re not the same thing, but many of us will struggle to identify why.

Some of us will rely on the size distinction, pointing out that stones are smaller than rocks – but at what size does one become the other? Others will suggest rock is the solid material that forms part of the Earth’s surface, and stones are merely small pieces of that material – all stones are rock, not all rocks are stone.

I’m not a geologist, evidently enough, although if I recall anything from Leaving Cert geography, the latter distinction is the more accurate. In any case, it’s true to say we intuitively know there’s a difference, but what that difference is and how to identify it is less certain for most of us.

All this geology talk might seem incongruous on these pages, but there’s a similar ambiguity that’s more germane: what is the difference between invention and innovation?

Again, we intuitively realise they are not the same thing, but when it comes to identifying the exact distinctions, and understanding the relationship between them, we are rather less certain.

One of the most astute technology analysts in the business, Asymco founder Horace Dediu, recently described the difference in an interview: “Innovation is not invention. Innovation is the application of invention in ways that solve new needs. I’m always amazed at how misunderstood this term is . . . Innovation is applied invention, just like engineering is applied science.”

He cited the Wikipedia definition as guidance: “Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.” Dediu was making the point in relation to Apple, and the distinction is one that is often misinterpreted in relation to our expectations of technology companies: we tend to determine how “innovative” a company is by counting how many “new” things the company is bringing to market, rather than judging how successfully the inventions have been applied in novel ways.

These might seem like issues of definition and semantics, but a conflation of invention with innovation is one of the contributory factors to the patent mess that is strangling the technology industry.

Originally, the patent system was designed to protect inventors by offering them a time-limited monopoly on their creations. Evidence of having conceived of the invention was required before the patent was issued. The current patent system, on the other hand, is effectively offering that time-limited monopoly not on new inventions but on the application of inventions – thereby imposing monopolies on the innovative process itself.

The perversities of the current patent system as applied in the US – which determines how much of the world’s intellectual property is to be protected – was exposed in a recent episode of US radio programme This American Life. It examined a labyrinthine legal case involving a patent for backing up data over the internet – using any system whatsoever. The very idea of backing up data over the internet, no matter how it is implemented, was owned by a company called Oasis, which paid the lion’s share of its litigation revenues to the notorious patent troll firm Intellectual Ventures. It’s a nauseating example of how broken the entire system has become.

A similar lawsuit at the moment is trying to force podcasters to pay a licensing fee for the supposedly patented podcasting technology. It hinges on a ridiculous patent owned by a company, Personal Audio LLC, that used to deliver magazine articles on cassette tapes in the 1990s. I’m not sure what was dumber in that case – the business model, or the patent office for granting such a patent.

These cases reveal a major problem with the patent system: the increasing prevalence of overly broad software patents. It imagines programmers as “inventors”, but these “inventors” are not creating circuit boards and microchips to implement their ideas, nor are they even creating new programming languages.

We don’t say that every songwriter “invents” a new song when they pen a tune; we don’t claim an author “invents” a book every time they publish a new novel. We determine how innovative those songs and books are by judging whether they have “applied” the notes or the words in a fresh way. Their intellectual property is protected by copyright, which has its own problems, but at least the concepts are fairly clear. By allowing software patents, the US Patent Office is conflating the process of invention with the process of innovation, with a distorting impact on the technology industry.

As the rocks and stones of our progress, it pays to be aware of how invention and innovation differ, and how they interact. It’s how our myriad ideas, the pebbles of our eureka moments, the grains of our thoughts, become something much greater. And it’s a difference the patent system needs to be more aware of.