Christopher Sprigman is a professor in the School of Law. His new book is The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Spurs Innovation, co-authored with UCLA law professor Kal Raustiala.
You and your co-author state that the freedom to copy and bring knockoffs to the market benefits creators and consumers alike. What is your favorite example of this in your book?
We usually think that unrestrained copying is a danger to creativity. But that doesn't seem to be the case in cuisine. Recipes are readily copied, and yet there is a huge amount of innovation around the globe. Cuisine is one of the many areas—others include fashion, comedy, open-source software, football, fonts, databases and financial innovations—in which creativity seems to get along quite nicely with a wide freedom to copy. In fact, in some of these areas, copying seems not simply to coexist with creativity but to spark it.
Is there a person you've written about who you think does not benefit from our knockoff economy?
The freedom to copy creates winners and losers. Our point isn't that no one is ever hurt by copying—just ask the major record companies. Our point is that, taken overall, copying does not seem to hurt creativity nearly as much as we might think. And in some instances, the freedom to copy means more innovation.
To see this point clearly, think for a moment about football. You may not think of football as a creative industry, but it definitely is—the game changes all the time, as coaches look for more effective offensive plays and formations and defensive counterstrategies. Beginning with the introduction of the forward pass in the early 1900s, we've seen repeated instances where innovative offenses (the West Coast Offense, the spread offense, the spread-option) and defenses (the nickel, the zone blitz, the 46) have renewed the game. In all of these cases, the innovating coaches were quickly copied. And the copying, far from deterring the next round of innovation, seems to speed it.
What books did you read as you researched for your book, and what are you reading now for fun?
As for what I'm reading now, my current favorite is Down in the Hole: The unWired World of H.B. Ogden. This is a book by two ersatz Victorian scholars resetting the plot of the best TV show ever made as a Victorian novel. Reading this book, I came to see that The Wire is in fact a Victorian novel, or at least adopts the conventions of one. This isn't to say that The Wire isn't wildly original—it is. But it also does a lot of borrowing. And that's good.