The Knockoff Economy | Kal Raustiala

Summary of: The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation
By: Kal Raustiala


Prepare to dive into the world of ‘The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation,’ where the authors Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman question the established notion that copying and imitation stifle innovation. In this book summary, you’ll discover surprising examples from industries such as fashion, cuisine, and technology, where copying thrives and drives creativity. Learn why copying can actually promote growth, how companies can use imitation to their advantage, and the importance of tweaking in ensuring constant improvement.

Creativity and Copyright

Contrary to popular belief, copying and imitation do not necessarily harm creativity and innovation. The fashion industry, for instance, thrives even without copyright laws protecting it. The high-end clothing brands that are often copied actually flourish despite selling their garments at 250 percent the price of the copying competition. Similarly, the culinary industry, which has no copyright protection for recipes, is considered to be at a creative peak. Chefs whose recipes are copied usually gain international recognition and success. Furthermore, industries with strict copyright laws such as music and film have been experiencing a decline in their markets. Such protections can make it harder for new competitors who could have been at the forefront of innovation in the field. Copying can, in fact, be part of the creative culture in some areas.

The Power of Copying

In some fields, copying is not just a nuisance; it’s the norm. This is particularly true for open-source computer programming and the culinary world, where copying is essential to the creative process. In fact, nonprofit and shared creative materials can be more successful than copyright-protected products. Wikipedia, with over 20 million entries, is a prime example of this phenomenon. Successful markets with high levels of creativity, like open-source software, grow and develop precisely because they are easily accessible for copying. The manifesto published by Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller in the Guardian affirms the belief that the best culinary traditions are “collective, cumulative inventions.” In summary, copying benefits creativity and innovation.

Copying and Tweaking for Innovation

Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb from scratch. Instead, he drew inspiration from proto-lightbulbs created by others. By imitating and tweaking existing ideas and inventions, innovators can widely expand innovation. Fonts, for instance, are easy to copy and modify, leading to an explosion of available fonts. Copying also speeds up market cycles and puts immense pressure on companies to innovate to remain competitive. In the fashion industry, copies of name-brand articles by less expensive brands cause the original goods to fall out of fashion, leading to increased innovation by the original designers. By building upon existing ideas and inventions, innovators can bring about significant progress and development.

The Power of Social Norms

Intellectual property laws are not always necessary due to the existence of social norms. Comedians, chefs, and fashion designers have in-built agreements not to copy each other’s work, resulting in the ostracism of those who break these agreements. Consumers can also spot copies and prefer to have the original product. The existence of social norms means that innovation can still exist in a world with copying.

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