Innovation gets the shaft

A recurring theme in the short history of modern computing is the response to innovation. Innovators get the shaft.

Alexey Pajitnov, the inventor of Tetris, didn’t receive any royalties for his game until 1996. Because VisiCalc wasn’t patented, its developers earned a pittance compared to the copycat 1-2-3. The operating system that formed the basis for MS-DOS was purchased for far less than it was worth. Microsoft turned around, with very little work, and licensed it for millions. IBM’s open architecture was copied and capitalized upon by enterprising clone makers, soon pushing IBM from the market.

In each of these cases, the action taken by the copycats and the middlemen was legitimate. This isn’t always the case, however. Apple and Microsoft both have a penchant for “borrowing” good ideas from others. OS X Dashboard gadgets bear a striking resemblance to Konfabulator widgets. Microsoft has a constant stream of inspiration from Google: Gmail, Google Maps and Google Books all seem to be making their way into Windows Live.

We seem to have no viable solution for this repeated abuse of the innovator. Intellectual property laws seem to be effective only at protecting the wealthy corporate giants. Copyright and patent reform might be successful, but would more likely lead to greater control by those corporations with a vested interest.

What is the answer? I don’t know. But for the sake of the innovators, I hope we can figure it out.