Monday, December 14, 2015

Hoverboards and the future of intellectual property

Planet Money had a really excellent show recently about the shadowy origin of the hoverboard which briefly discusses the intellectual property dimensions of the technology. The hoverboard's explosion in popularity combined with its non-branded nature is a perfect example of how patents and IP restrictions are increasingly inefficient as policies to promote innovation and consumer welfare.

A collection of big platform technologies--miniaturization, the internet, distributed supply chains, industrial clustering and agglomeration effects in Shenzhen--made it easy to bring this small consumer product to market, experiment with design changes and rapidly iterate. In a world where anyone with a computer and an idea can tweak and effortlessly sell things to a global market, the incentivizing effect of patents and copyright are increasingly unnecessary.

Erstwhile presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig wrote a great book on this topic, Remix, and Adam Thierer's Permissionless Innovation is another quick primer on the subject.

I must say, the patriot in me loves that this technology probably originated in the US, and has taken hold most strongly among consumers here. The US is still the best place in the world to innovate, due not in small part to our relatively lax regulatory state. The hoverboard's success is a wonderful symbol of our entrepreneurial identity, and I hope other technologies such as drones or self-driving cars are not overly restricted due to IP rules that are stuck in a past technological context.


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