It was good while it lasted. We used to
think that we would always own the innovation game. Heck, American giants like
Edison, Morse and the brothers Wright practically invented the modern art of
innovation. Even though we were appropriately nervous when our manufacturing
base began shifting overseas at the end of the last century, in our usual fog
of overconfidence, we always assumed the U.S. would own the future.
Well, we ought to be thinking of a back-up
Let me share two stories from the June 2
issue of the "China Daily." Accompanying a photo of a small boy working on a
solar-powered car for a school competition is an article with a startling punch
line: The director of the Tianjin Intellectual Property Office, who hosted the
competition, reports that these young students have filed more than 3,000
patent applications with local authorities over the past two years!
In an adjoining article, the mayor of
Zhengzhou lauds his city's designation as a national demonstration city for
intellectual property, saying, "Intellectual property has become an
increasingly important strategic resource for national development and
"China Daily" is a state-run newspaper,
which makes this a de facto announcement that China intends to pursue and own
the big ideas that shape our world. When China talks about national development, they are talking about the potential of harnessing the energy of
1.3 billion minds.
Innovation is the battleground for the
future and these stories are indicators that we are losing the home field
We can be skeptical about the veracity
of state-run media, and whether the Chinese government can ever fully embrace
the legal protections required of intellectual property. But we also should
remember how we scoffed at those early Asian auto imports as we buckle
ourselves into Hondas, Toyotas and Kias on our way home from work today.
But let's not sell the U.S. short quite
yet. There are exciting examples of young innovative Americans leading the way.
We recently finished up a competition at
SMU's Lyle School of Engineering where students from all disciplines were
invited to pair up their plans for an invention with an application for a
provisional patent. This is old-school cause and effect, teaching our students
that if you build something exciting and relevant, you can own it. The winning
team designed, built and demonstrated an audio mixing system that allows a
sound designer to control the audio tracks in film or music by moving his or
her fingers across a glass screen. It was, quite simply, amazing.
This kind of "innovate-then-patent"
competition should be an American standard. The reason it is happening in my
sandbox is due to a forward-thinking fellow who trained as an engineer and now
practices intellectual property law here in Dallas. Because he is in a unique
position to understand the importance of owning new ideas, he gratefully
sponsored the lion's share of the competition.
In the IP world, it's not just about the
about the numbers. It's also about the quality of the patents. It's about
giving creative people the space, the opportunity and the financial incentive
to do the impossible.† Yes, it's nice
work if you can get it. Like George Gershwin said, you can get it if you try.
Geoffrey C. Orsak, Ph.D. is dean of the SMU Lyle School of
Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.