Idea Squatting

Today, both Newton and Leibniz are given credit for developing calculus independently. Chances are that most of my readers are nerd enough to know that, and most of the others are close enough to the nerd neighbourhood to find it interesting.

Less well known is that the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. So it’s just as well that Malcolm Gladwell tells us in his current New Yorker article. The article is to a large extent an admiring account of Nathan Myhrvold and his Intellectual Ventures.

So it’s just as well that Mike Masnick tells us that Gladwell, while “a truly fantastic writer… misses the real point.”

As Gladwell points out — rarely is it about “genius,” but about the fact that all of the previous work in the field naturally leads to this end result — and if it wasn’t one person discovering it, someone else would. The article lists out big name invention after invention that all have “multiples”…

[But] if these ideas are the natural progression, almost guaranteed to be discovered by someone sooner or later, why do we give a monopoly on these ideas to a single discoverer? Myhrvold’s whole business model is about monopolizing all of these ideas and charging others (who may have discovered them totally independently) to actually do something with them. Yet, if Gladwell’s premise is correct (and there’s plenty of evidence included in the article), then Myhrvold’s efforts shouldn’t be seen as a big deal. After all, if it wasn’t Myhrvold and his friends doing it, others would very likely come up with the same thing sooner or later.

The best term I can think of for what Myhrvold is up to is idea squatting, since it is rather similar to domain squatting. I wondered if I’d coined a new term, but a quick Google showed me that Machiavelli had beaten me to it, albeit by only four years, rather than by five centuries as I originally suspected.

By the way, a quick Domize showed that ideasquatting.com is still available. But I didn’t grab it, since I’m no domain squatter. Thanks to Mashable Adam for posting about Domize. And thanks to Open Glyn for dishing the (tech)dirt on Masnick on Gladwell.