Thursday, September 30, 2010

Idea Ownership - Doth it Matterith?

A while back, I don’t exactly remember when, Tesh (From Tish Tosh Tesh) asked me a profound question:

“Does idea ownership matter? Is it not wise to consider ideas on their own merit rather than dismiss or validate them based on their source?
Just a thought…”

I finally have a good answer for him, not my incoherent ramblings from my first attempt. This is something I have thought about constantly for a few months now. So I hope in this attempt I can make my answer perfectly clear. To the question “Does idea ownership matter?”, I say:


(If you’ve come here for WoW stuff, hang in there, for me it all comes back to another question about Blizzard that I don’t have the answer to. Moving on…)

Idea Defined
My answer is 100% contingent on the definition of “Idea” that we’re talking about. If we were to discuss a theme or subject of unknown authorship, of general public knowledge and/or interest such as Taxes, Immigration, Slavery, Communism, Capitalism, then NO, idea ownership does not, or at least should not matter. Who came up with the idea of slavery anyway? I don’t know. But over time it’s evolved into a subject of debate and consideration (SDC). That’s right, I just made up my own acronym!!! Who had the bright idea that governments should tax its people? I sure as heck-fire don’t know. These are ideas of a special kind, SDC’s that have no known authorship and are debated in public forums or even privately among friends and acquantences.

There are difficulties, however, in debating these general subjects. One problem I see is that no or very few subject(s) is presented by an impartial spokesman, so any information shared will be tainted by biases too difficult to mask completely, if any attempt to mask them at all has been made. Other difficulties are the variables that become part of the equation: An individual's communication skills (listening, speaking, phraseology, use of common fallacies), personal experiences, personality, temperament, education, and the list goes on and on. The ideal is that these subjects should be considered on their own merits and idea ownership does NOT matter. Too bad the world isn’t ideal.

A Bright Idea
The other definition involves an idea that has a known author, which idea is an actual entity (a thought, conept, sensation, or image) that is actually or potentially present to consciousness. Combined with that are ideas which can be considered “plans of action”.

For example: I have an idea for a new TV show. A little alien, only about 2 ½ feet tall (who, by the way, likes to be called a small, but just as smart, person) with magical powers travels from world to world saving the galaxy in which he lives from evil glowing balls of gas and fire. It will be called “Sun Killer, The Irony of Misunderstood Heroism”.

Would you watch a show about a Gnome who accidentally destroyed all the suns in a Galaxy, believed himself to be a hero but everyone hated him, but due to his utter ignorance kept on doing what he thought was heroic? Maybe, maybe not. Are your opinions changed knowing who the author of the idea was? If, for example, the show was put into production, should I (the author) receive credit for the idea? Does idea ownership, in the above example, matter?

Let’s say you’re on Safari in Africa and fall into a pit with 10 cobra snakes and your grandmother and uncle Vinny. Someone needs to come up with an idea, a unique and specific plan of action fit for the situation or you're all gonna die. "Quick, take granny's shawl and toss it onto that tree root, we'll use it to pull ourselves up!" Or let’s assume that you are a blog writer, a novelist, or a poet? Did anyone else come up with the idea of Harry Potter or was it JK Rowling who had that idea? Maybe you had something similar, but you suck at writing, so you scrapped it. Oh well, no billionaire ball for you!

This definition of idea is clearly different than the first I presented. It implies that the idea is a creative thought or concept designed to answer a question or serve a purpose or make someone's life better, etc, etc, etc. Given this definition of Idea, to answer the question, “Does idea ownership matter?” I say without hesitation…YES.

To prove this I point to some popular social and legal norms. Plagiarism is illegal and unethical in just about every civilized nation I know of (excepting communist or dictatorship states). In science, education, the workplace, if you copy someone’s work and pass it off as your own, that’s bad. Why? Because idea ownership matters!

Many nations, including the US of A has enacted copyright laws to protect original authors of their ideas, or intellectual property.

“Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literacy, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works…[The laws] generally gives the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

(See link for more details)

A scientist who bases some part of their new and groundbreaking theories on somebody else’s work MUST reference all his/her work or that scientist will be unemployed and will have to find a job teaching Junior High School somewhere…if they are lucky. Why? Because idea ownership matters. It matters so much, in fact, that breaking copyright law can land you a hefty fine or even up to time in jail. Ouch!

Ideas in the Business World
In business…oh, business. Here is where I begin my decent into Blizzard and World of Warcraft. I’m a businessman, oh yeah. I got to business meeting and have business luncheons, and dress up in business attire, and have a business office. I’ve also had a business idea of mine stolen by a co-worker, which ended up in their promotion and my ultimately having to leave the company. If ever I were to resort to violence to solve problems, that would have been one instance where violence was justified. But that was a long time ago, when I was ignorant and foolish and trusting of, you know, other humans. I’m more guarded now and make sure that I protect my business ideas very, very carefully.

Idea ownership is king in business. It can bring you into the position of CEO or land you in the unemployment line. I imagine if you’re a game developer and come up with a really crappy idea for a game, it may be hard to keep your job or find work in the future. But if you develop a really, really, really great idea and that idea takes off, you could benefit from it in major ways.

Which brings me to my final question, one that I do not have an answer to.

WoW Dev Team – Group Rewards or Individual Recognition?
Does anyone know how much the devs who create all aspects of WoW actually work together vs how often they work alone? Who initially thought up the concept of talents? Did they get a raise? How about 31 point talents? Did that person get a promotion? Or are the ideas that flow within the development team considered “shared” ideas?

Legally, I know ATVI owns all the ideas, it’s how all good businesses protect themselves and their intellectual property and investments. Technically there are things I created at my previous jobs that are legally “owned” by those companies, but I know that I created those programs or processes, etc. And they know it too. But the work I did while there legally belonged to them, as do the ideas belong to ATVI.

But the practices of reality do not always reflect the legality of things. In practice, I wonder if individual devs get credit internally for their work or for any great ideas or concepts that they design? If 10 people are in a room and at the end they decide to go with 31 point talent trees, who gets credit for it? Does anyone? Does everyone? Does idea ownership matter within Blizzard’s development team?

Maybe that question can only be answered by Blizzard, or maybe someone out there has insight that can ease my troubled mind. If I were working on WoW, in some developer capacity (which will never happen, I’m an accountant, remember?) I think that I would enjoy personal and individual recognition of some things, and also be happy for the success of others and as a whole team. But to be void of any individual recognition, to be told that ownership of ideas didn’t matter when I was the one who created the LFD tool (just an example) I think would hurt, ya know, emotionally. How motivated would I be if I never received recognition for the ideas that helped build a really great game? I, Gronthe, would definitely lose some motivation, if I were being honest with myself.

How many used to watch Saturday Night Live in the 1990’s? There was a skit, I can’t remember who did it, I think it was Al Franken, who would have celebrities look into a mirror and say: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonnit people like me.” It was especially funny when Michael Jordan did it at the height of his popularity. But I’m afraid that in business, in the workplace, self-affirmations isn’t enough. I know I’m smart, but I need my boss to know it too. I depend on his opinion for my living. Without it, I lose job satisfaction.

I’m hoping that Blizzard does both, recognize people and teams, and they probably do. But I don’t know for sure. I hope they do because Idea Ownership, when discussing thoughts and concepts of original authorship, DOES MATTER in society, as evidences by our norms and our laws.

All other general subject ideas, SDC’s so to speak, idea ownership DOES NOT MATTER. I should not validate or invalidate an idea, or a subject matter, because a biased source delivers the topic in a way that is leading and not 100% objective. It may be difficult, but the ideal still stands, it does not, or at the very least should not matter. In reality, however, I'm afraid that it does, that people get tainted by a biased opinion that is difficult to uproot. But alas, a discussion for another time...

So to Tesh, who’s questions have tortured me the past few months, I hate you!!! No, I really don’t, I thank you for making me think about this more. For making me delve into my own opinions, for making me look around me in the world and consider the applications of these questions.

I know this wasn’t your typical World of Warcraft post, it was an attempted expression of thoughts that I tied into WoW, somehow. Anyway, I’m tired, I think I want to take a nap. Until next time…


Syl said...

Coming from an 'open source' background I always found the question of copyrighting ideas a very tricky one. I clearly prefer the bazaar ideology over the cathedral one, simply because I believe that as a society we benefit a lot more by sharing know-how and skill than making it exclusive.
it gets trickier when we enter certain branches like the arts, where the main product is often of immaterial quality and people make a living out of music or stories; but i think it's also the industry's job to think of better business models to keep the customers paying: just like the gaming industry is gravitating more and more towards a hardware-free and subs-based gaming model.

As for your question about who gets credit in a staff of devs - one can only speculate, but i assume that usually in such enterprises you'd have set departments in charge of different things and these come up with solutions as a group, rather than individuals.

Tesh said...

Mwahaha! My nefarious idea to get people to think has borne fruit!

Er... does that mean I can copyright it?


A bit less pithily, am I reading you correctly to summarize by suggesting that if an idea has utility and/or earning potential, ownership matters, but if it's merely a philosophical SDC, we may as well throw it into the public winds?

If that's so... where's the line between the two? And can one turn into the other?

Gronthe said...

@ Tesh: STOP IT! NO MORE QUESTIONS! :) Seriously though, I think your summary may be oversimplifying what I'm trying to say. Slavery has earning potential, but it can't really be classified as "Intellectual Property" of one. If I own a cotton farm I sure as heck can make more money if my employees are slaves and I churn out nothing but insane margins.

In truth I may have attempted to oversimplify it myself. But there are, what, millions of ideas and subjects that probably cross some line between my two definitions daily. I think I just do my best to diferentiate by asking myself: "What does the laws of my country say about this? What are the social norms of where I live, where I work, where I go to church, where I educate myself?" Because as we know not all rules are law and not all law are rules.

Many of these SDC's have unknown origin, and so they are not the type of idea that can be or should be protected by law or enforced as some social rule (like not ripping off a co-workers ideas). That's why I separate them.

But the question really requires so much more that I can probably ever treat it. I wrote about 15 pages on it and only posted a portion of my thoughts. This could be a novel, but I won't go there.

For now I draw the line where societies do (mostly), in law, in rules and codes of business and education, etc, and leave everything else to people with the hope that we can discuss certain ideas on their merits alone. But like I alluded to, I can't even do it completely, I'm a flawed human and am influenced one way or another due to the messenger. That may not be how it should be, but in many cases it's how it actually works.

Where's the line? I tried to answer, although my answer will never be perfect. Can one turn into another? Sure, maybe as a revised or enlighted version of its former self, or where one idea serves as a foundation as another, like what happens in science.

I really want a good weekend, and any more of your deep questions may just make me find you and burn your house down. :)

@ Syl: I can imagine copyright laws being difficult to apply from an open source background. I would assume that every industry has certain norms that they try to work by, some industries are far more protective than others. Literature, music, they are obsessed with idea ownership because it's their livelihood at stake, their chance at ultimate success. Others, not so much.


This will end my attempts at this topic. I'm just not eloquent or intelligent or patient enough to formulate all my thoughts into something intelligible enough to want to be read, but I appreciate ya'lls participating in the exercise.

Anonymous said...

I would like to exchange links with your site
Is this possible?

Tesh said...

Questions? I don't ask questions. Who asks questions?


blast it.


No worries, I think you've written up some good thoughts here, and thanks for clarifying. Sure, there's ways to take it further, but why stress? :)

Er, wait. That's not a question. That's um... rhetorical. Those don't count.