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Knock It Off


By Jack Feuer

Published Oct 1, 2012 8:00 AM

What do Forever 21, the Buffalo Bills’ 1990s offense, the Kogi food truck, Ed’s Lobster Bar and Carlos Mencia all have in common? They are examples of a provocative but curiously optimistic idea: that imitation can be the sincerest form of innovation — at least in industries that fall partly or completely outside the laws governing intellectual property.


This is the contention of a fascinating new book called The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, co-authored by Kal Raustiala, UCLA School of Law and International Institute professor and director of the UCLA Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations, and Christopher Jon Sprigman, professor of law at the University of Virginia.

Going all the way back to the time of the Founding Fathers, the idea was that protection of intellectual property, or IP, encourages creativity and fosters innovation. But the authors, longtime collaborators and childhood friends, contend that in some industries, copying actually feeds creativity. The idea was born out of a concept Raustiala and Sprigman introduced several years ago that they called “the piracy paradox.”

Originally presented in a law journal and aimed at other legal scholars, the idea nonetheless received a torrent of major media attention, and the authors were even asked to testify on the subject of IP law before Congress. “So we realized that there was a bigger audience for our ideas than just other lawyers,” Raustiala explains, “and we wanted to extend what we had done to other unconventional creative fields, like food, football and comedy.”

Raustiala adds, “We use the term in a very particular way, to discuss the idea that copying can actually benefit an industry, rather than harming it. We don’t think that is true of all industries. But we do think that copying has many underappreciated values … a great example is the VCR — [legendary movie studio lobbyist] Jack Valenti likened it at first to a rapist when he spoke before Congress, but it turned out to be a major gift to Hollywood.”

The Knockoff Economy

Kal Raustiala talks about a new book that he co-authored, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation.

Video by Aaron Proctor '05

The examples in the opening paragraph of this story, in fact, are all examples of people, companies and the urban sensation that sold Korean tacos out of a truck and spawned a national phenomenon copying other ideas or products in businesses “in which copyright and patent do not apply or are not used,” the authors write in their introduction. The book also touches on the knockoff effect on fonts, databases and cocktails. And in each, copycats spurred their own imitators, generating even more innovation.

The authors do not argue for the elimination of IP protections. But they do contend that the “one size fits all” legal rules governing copying create many problems and that “the idea that copying can actually be a force for good has not been sufficiently well-articulated,” Raustiala concludes. “The debate is a healthy one.”



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