Sunday, March 20, 2011

Innovation Déjà Vu (or The Idea Clone Wars)

I think we are all too familiar with how every now and then several Hollywood movies come out with the same basic plot in relatively short succession. Here are some of my favorites (not in Oscar-worthiness, but in how much of a clone the movies are of each other):

Matrix, Dark City, & Thirteenth Floor;
Deep Impact & Armageddon;
Antz & A Bug's Life;
Finding Nemo & Shark Tale;
The Truman Show & Ed TV;
Volcano & Dante's Peak;
War of The Worlds (with Tom Cruise) & War of The Worlds (without Tom Cruise);
United 93 & World Trade Center;

This, of course, is not a coincidence as pointed out in a study published in this 2006 Whittier Law Review article by IP attorney Igor Dubinsky:
Movies arise from scripts, scripts arise from ideas, and while ideas, as Justice Brandeis noted, are “free as the air,” they must be nurtured by authors to present any real value. Once an author gives birth to an idea for a story or movie, he develops it and then attempts to sell it to a movie studio. If the author can secure a meeting with a studio executive, he presents his idea at an “idea-man” presentation. Alternatively, the movie script can be submitted to a studio via mail or a third person.

On the average, movie executives receive over 20,000 movie and TV show ideas per year, but only review 6,000 of these, many of them over meals with executives from other networks. Movie ideas come from various sources including Sunset Boulevard, network executives, the studios themselves, stars and their agents, independent producers, writers, word of mouth, trade papers, and magazines... Only about 200 sample scripts are commissioned per year, and seldom are more than twenty of those

Sometimes the person who conceived the idea for a movie script will win a meeting with studio executives, only to have the idea rejected and then rewritten and developed by the executives without paying any copyright royalties to the original author. What happens even more often is that a script author will shop the same idea at numerous movie studios, or movie studio executives at different companies will discuss with each other ideas for movies they are thinking of putting into production. These same ideas will then be developed into movies by two or more competing studios. At the box office these similar movies will come out like déjà vu, within a few weeks or months of each other.   
Are the same nefarious forces at play when we see a sudden rush of group texting startups (hat tip to George Zachary for the apt tweet on this), location-based services, social commerce websites (aka Groupon clones), VoIP startups (ok, I participated in that Clone War by starting jaxtr, a "j" letter mobile VoIP company in 2005), etc?

As the parallels between Hollywood and Silicon Valley in the above excerpt are too obvious to point out, I would like to share with you a more generalized response, which is the following:

Innovation in Silicon Valley is as much a social process as is ideation in Hollywood. We need to talk to others to be able to refine and solidify all the various thoughts that swim around in our heads. The good thing about this social process is that we come up with better results because of it (a recent study points out that the best academic articles are those that are produced by teamwork rather than "solo geniuses"). The bad thing, however, is that as soon as we talk to one other person, we will have to accept the fact that there will undoubtedly be a multitude of others that will have the same idea planted in their heads and will want to do something with it. If you want to innovate, the clone wars are inevitable!

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