Stealing Ideas

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery.

Unfortunately, in the world of business – like in Big Tech for example, it’s not flattering at all. It is in fact, heartbreaking and one that can spell the difference between an individual’s phenomenal success and failure.

I am referring to the thievery of ideas by corporate giants from students, inventors or garage nerds. While we are living in an age of great ideas and innovation, we’re also seeing more audacious acts of thievery, especially intellectual property.

Copyright infringements have become all-too-common between big companies and smaller start-ups or individual creators. We’ve heard of horror stories about multinational giants involved in copyright infringements, when in reality they can very well afford to pay creators for great ideas.

There are also cases of intellectual property infringements between big companies such as what happened between Gucci and Guess. Gucci sued Guess in 2009 for using a similar logo. Gucci won after a legal battle and was paid $4.7 million, although it asked for a bigger amount.

David vs Goliath

But the saddest copyright infringements are those between big companies and smaller start-ups.

The story of how Google supposedly used a stolen source code to develop Google Earth is one example depicted in the must watch Netflix miniseries The Billion Dollar Code.

The series tells the story of two tech guys from Berlin who developed a source code for a kind of virtual interface that allowed people to travel to any point in the world.

The Berlin techies from ART+COM went to Silicon Valley to promote their idea, but during that trip, the algorithm they created fell into the wrong hands – to a popular tech guy who would later work for Google. Ten years later, Google Earth was born with striking similarities to the work of the guys from ART+COM.

In the course of the legal battle against Google, which was heard in a US court and which, not surprisingly, Google won, lawyers for ART+COM claimed that the tech giant has had a long pattern of patent infringements.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just happening in the tech world.

How many times have we heard of fast fashion giants copying designs from smaller, lesser known clothing companies or individual designers?

This heartbreaking practice must end. It deprives young entrepreneurs, garage nerds, and inventors the chance to bring their ideas out into the world.


I also find it suspicious when companies, both foreign and local, hold student contests in search of innovative ideas for business.

Winners get cash prizes, but I believe that if the idea would actually be used by the company in the future, there must be a separate compensation or royalty given to the owner of that innovative idea.

It is not wrong to encourage great thinking, but it is cruel to use it for profit without giving proper credit to the owner of the intellectual property.

This is no different from government agencies or corporations holding photography or art contests, only to use the winning pieces to market their brand for as long and as often as they want.

An art contest winner may win a measly P30,000 for an excellent work of art, but if he was commissioned to do a piece for the company’s brand logo or merchandise requirements, he would have certainly been paid more, as is the practice in the industry.

Some companies and government agencies try to save on cost by holding contests instead.

Encouraging innovations and protecting inventors

The government must also support intellectual property owners so that their ideas can be part of people’s daily lives.

In the Philippines, we have quite a number of Filipino inventors. They get their patents, but their noteworthy inventions end up mothballed because they do not have the initial capital to reproduce their products or the network to bring their ideas into reality.

I am sure there are many notable ideas out there. One Filipino inventor Ernesto Labuntog sent me a letter some months ago to share his idea for a portable water treatment device. He holds the patent to this invention, which he touts as a micro version of our existing water system.

This, he believes, would be useful in case a big earthquake strikes and hits our water infrastructure.

“Question is, how can we supply drinking water for such a big population?” he said.

He believes the solution is to mass produce his invention. He has demonstrated his water treatment device to hospitals and government agencies, and has received positive feedback.

I have heard of similar innovative ideas on water, including proprietary water recycling and reuse technologies.

Perhaps in other fields there are many more creative ideas and technology waiting for government support.

I hope such ideas do not end up stolen by corporate giants or other individuals who would market the innovations as their own.

In any case, Davids victimized by corporate Goliaths must speak up if this happens.

It’s never easy to go against giants, but when we fight for something that is right and due us, the heart always knows it’s done the right thing and sometimes that’s what matters most.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com


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