Knockoffs Can Spark Innovation, Boost Economy, UVA Law Professor's Book Argues

University of Virginia law professor Christopher Sprigman co-authored a new book, "The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation."

August 6, 2012

Conventional wisdom holds that strong copyright and patent laws are necessary to encourage creativity. Without such protections, the thinking goes, competitors are free to steal ideas, create knockoffs and drain profits from innovators.

Yet a number of major industries — fashion, cuisine, open-source software, finance, fonts, stand-up comedy and more — manage to thrive and innovate in the absence of legal protections for intellectual property.

In many of these industries, copying is widespread. And, in many cases, that's actually a good thing, according to University of Virginia law professor Christopher Sprigman.

Sprigman is the co-author of "The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation," a new book that explores how certain industries prosper without copyright and patent law, even amidst pervasive imitation.

"I'm not interested in intellectual property law. I'm interested in innovation. I'm interested in creativity," Sprigman said. "The typical story about IP law is that it's the handmaiden of innovation and creativity. That it's the way we incentivize people to engage in creative labor — but there's a whole world of creativity out there that is motivated by different things. The question is, can you sustain creativity at high levels without intellectual property, or with less IP than we have now? The answer for the book is 'Yes.'"

The book's inspiration arose from a conversation several years ago between Sprigman and co-author  Kal Raustiala, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, about how the fashion industry manages to perform well, despite the prevalence of knockoffs.


Professor Christopher Sprigman

"Copyright doesn't cover fashion designs," Sprigman said. "And so fashion designers are free to copy and take inspiration from their rivals' designs. And there is lots of copying in the fashion industry, but there's lots of innovation and there's lots of profits. We wanted to understand how that was possible."

Sprigman and Raustiala figured out that copying actually allows the fashion industry to set trends and motivate consumers to buy more clothes.

"We don't know a trend until there are lots of copies. That's what makes a trend," Sprigman said. "Copying helps spread a trend and then it helps kill it when there's too much copying. The early adopters flee the trend and they adopt the next trend. So the trend cycle is fueled, in a sense, by copying, and this helps the industry as a whole, though it might in some instances hurt individual designers."

Other industries, such as cuisine, also thrive despite wide freedom to copy.

"You can't really copyright a recipe," he said. "You can't really copyright a dish as prepared, or patent it for that matter. But there's lots and lots of copying. Also lots and lots of innovation in cuisine."

A similar situation can be found in professional football, he said.

There's "lots of innovation in football offenses and defenses — wide freedom to copy," he said. "In fact, these offenses and defenses are knocked off all the time. But that doesn't stop coaches from innovating, and we explore why."

The book also delves into the world of stand-up comedy, building on an earlier article written by Sprigman and UVA law professor Dotan Oliar. Without intellectual property law to prevent joke theft, comedians police themselves.


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