Imitation Ain’t Easy

On the Syfy tv show Alphas one of the characters is able to see something once and learn it perfectly. Thus, she can learn a martial art, or how to fix a car, or how to speak a language just by imitation. This ability is rightly considered a superpower. Yet, in economic models it’s assumed that everyone has this ability.

Imitation, however, is difficult even when knowledge is freely available. In Launching I give the example of The French Laundry Cookbook which promises that with “exact recipes” and “simple methods” that “you can now re-create at home the very experience the Wine Spectator described as ‘as close to dining perfection as it gets.'” Yet despite exact recipes and simple methods we don’t see imitations of the restaurant twice named the best in the world popping up in Muncie, Indiana (trust me on that one).

Similarly, in Apple v. Samsung the jury found that Samsung copied Apple and indeed they copied Apple well enough to survive but nowhere near well enough to eliminate Apple’s monopoly power as Eli Dourado points out:

According to a recent article at Fortune, Apple sells 8.8% of mobile phones, but it has 73% of profits in the market. Samsung sells 23.5% of phones and earns 26% of profits. Everyone else is barely breaking even or losing money.

This does not look like a market in which Apple’s competitors are successfully copying it. It looks like a market in which Apple’s competitors are trying to copy Apple, and failing.

The point of patents is to incentivize innovation through a grant of monopoly. But what Apple’s success, pre-verdict, clearly shows is that in many markets, mobile computing among them, it’s a lot harder to copy innovations than you think. Apple’s real innovation is putting designers in charge and building a corporate culture in which everything is subordinated to making elegant products that people want to use. I’d like to see Samsung try to copy that, but I think the difficulty of doing so gives Apple all the monopoly it needs.


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