Why I’m okay with someone stealing my idea

Ten years ago in 2004 I made The Collective Type Project, an online experiment where anyone could draw letters of the alphabet. Everyone’s input would be averaged together for each letter of the alphabet, and in the end a typeface (font) representing everyone’s contribution would be created and made available for free. The project completed in 2007, but you can still download the font and see all the letters.

2as
2 contributions averaged for A

 

255 contributions
255 contributions averaged for A

 

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 3.42.43 PM
The final typeface for The Collective Type Project

 

Recently, The Universal Typeface Experiment was posted on my Facebook feed:

collectiveFacebookPost

It was posted because I also made a globally crowdsourced, mouse drawn, eventually downloadable font 10 years ago.

Here’s the description of Bic’s Universal Typeface Experiment:

This experiment allows individuals from all over the world to contribute their handwriting. A specially developed algorithm then calculates an average, allowing us to merge contributions into a single, ever-changing and always evolving typeface.

Ten years ago I’d be livid to see this because I would have thought they stole my idea.

But today, after ten years of designing products, I feel the opposite. I don’t think my idea was stolen. In fact, I’m excited for Bic’s project because I’ve learned a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Ideas are rarely unique

Before I make something, I keep the following in mind:

  1. Before starting, assume what you’re about to make has already been made
  2. While making, assume other people are actively making the same thing
  3. After you’re done, assume other people will make the same thing, whether intentionally or unintentionally

It’s just how things work. Ideas are cheap, plentiful, and tend to repeat. Don’t take it personally when they do. But some people do take it personally, and that leads to the next point.

Lesson 2: I don’t think anyone stole my idea

It’s a marvelous conceit to believe someone stole your idea.

The first time someone stole my idea was in Mrs. Small’s first grade classroom when I was seven years old. At show-and-tell, I was going to show off my transformer toy, but Scott shared the exact same toy before I could.

He STOLE MY IDEA.

Two years later I discovered a large quartz deposit in the backyard of a house next to the schoolyard. A chain-link fence separated me from some dirt, so I used a stick to dig at it, scored some sweet quartz, and quickly became the first quartz baron of Oakwood Public Elementary School.

A week after showing everyone my quartz haul, dozens of quartz-greedy children abandoned a sweet playground for poking the dirt with sticks through a rusty chain-link fence, allowing me full reign of the swing set.

But still, they STOLE MY IDEA.

Things like this happened for years. All the time. Even recently when I worked at Microsoft designing the thumb keyboard for Windows 8.

We were so excited to reveal it to the world at the D9 conference in 2011. Months of work led up to this moment. After the big reveal, there were like, three tweets about it. It was that monumental.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 2.01.15 PM
I remember where I was when the world was changed forever.

Four days later, Apple revealed updates to their forthcoming iOS 5, which included a thumb keyboard for iPad. What!? They must have seen our keynote, and in 96 hours scrambled, strategized, planned, designed, coded, tested, and integrated a fully functional thumb keyboard into iOS. Because there’s no way they could have had that idea without seeing my idea first.

Apple STOLE MY IDEA.

If the theme of STOLE MY IDEA doesn’t sound completely ridiculous yet, it should. Because saying someone stole your idea (lacking evidence) is like saying humans are incapable of independent thought. That ideas are not intuited, but only exist by stealing from others.

You may be saying THEY STOLE MY IDEA. But what everyone hears is I’M INCREDIBLY INSECURE ABOUT THIS SMALL THING THAT NO ONE BUT ME CARES ABOUT.

Ask anyone “Who released the thumb keyboard first: Apple or Microsoft?” and you’ll get a consistent answer: “Who cares?” No one cares who’s idea it was. No one cares who was first.

In the end, screaming “they STOLE MY IDEA” only makes me sound like a petulant first grader in Mrs. Small’s class.

Lesson 3: Influence is inspiration

If you want to influence and inspire people, you can’t be upset when their work reminds you of your own.

Averaging many visual things into one visual thing isn’t a unique concept. I was probably influenced by Jason Salavon’s work where he averaged every Playboy centerfold into one image:

salavon
Jason Salavon’s Every Playboy Centerfold, 1988-1997 

One of my all-time favourite songs is A Warm Place by Nine Inch Nails. Interestingly, the melody is nearly identical to David Bowie’s Crystal Japan.

In an interview with the two musicians, Reznor talks about writing A Warm Place and how it sounded too good to be original. Unintentionally, he re-wrote elements of Bowie’s song. Was Bowie pissed to find out? No, because Bowie wrote it 14 years prior and had written, evolved, and released a whole pile of new work since then.

But not only was he not pissed, the two collaborated on “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Similarity and influence doesn’t have to end with antagonism.

Did I influence someone involved with the Bic project? Maybe someone saw my site ten years ago and was unconsciously influenced. Maybe not. But what I do know is I now have something in common with MediaMonks (the people who built the Universal Typeface Experiment.)

Honestly, I’m really excited for MediaMonks because the project will reveal some really cool data, insights, and human behavior just like Collective did. It’s really fun stuff. And I hope I’ll be able to meet or at least chat with some of them to learn how they approached the project, where they’ll take it, and some of the cool stories they find in the data.

I’m sure they’d love to hang out if the first thing I said was “HEY ASSHOLES, YOU STOLE MY IDEA. We should get coffee some time!”

Lesson 4: Execution > idea

The Universal Typeface Experiment is being executed in a way Collective couldn’t. Because I love the concept of aggregating mass participation into an unpredictable and functional end product, I’m just super stoked to see it evolve.

In 2004, no one had a touchscreen, web servers had bottlenecks, and mass participation was difficult.

In 2004, people had to “write” letters into Collective with mice connected to desktop computers. My web server limited me to storing 255 contributions per character. Rallying mass participation was difficult unless you were mentioned on a major design site like K10K or NetDiver.

When I built Collective, Facebook was only for ivy leaguers, Twitter didn’t exist, Reddit didn’t exist, YouTube didn’t exist, and DeviantArt was a lot of drawings with bad lens flare effects. The best I had for rallying mass participation was combining MSN messenger, email, and Friendster and hoping it’d appear on SlashDot.

In 2014 things are different. Ubiquitous touchscreens make drawing letters easier and better. Cheap computing allows Bic to get over 1 million contributions instead of 30,000. And mass participation is easy thanks to the powerful sharing methods of the social network du jour.

On top of that, Bic is bringing in user data for things like handedness, country, age, and gender to make things even more interesting.

I had fun building Collective, it was a cool portfolio piece that helped me get a job I loved, and then I moved on to the next thing. If I cared about it that much, wouldn’t I have evolved it by now? How can I be mad about someone doing something similar when I practically abandoned the project eight years ago?

Lesson 5: Protect when necessary

Everything I’ve written so far has been lovey-dovey. But there’s always the chance someone intentionally took Collective and re-implemented it.

IP theft is horrible, frequent, and can destroy people and businesses when it happens. But if you’re in a position where someone stealing your idea results in you getting fucked, your job description has a new bullet point: Protect and defend IP. If someone steals and implements your IP, you need to get better at your job.

In conclusion

Know what’s valuable, know what’s worth defending, and protect it. Because it will be replicated intentionally or otherwise.

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