Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman’s new book “The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation” challenges the accepted notion that imitation is wrong. The duo found that copying actually allows the fashion industry to set trends and motivate consumers to buy more clothes.
The book approaches the question of incentives and innovation in a wholly new way by exploring creative fields where copying is generally legal, such as fashion, food, and even professional football. By uncovering these important but rarely studied industries, the duo revealed a nuanced and fascinating relationship between imitation and innovation. In some creative fields, copying is kept in check through informal industry norms enforced by private sanctions. In others, the freedom to copy actually promotes creativity.
“In our legal system, that expectation of reward rests on rules that guarantee a monopoly over a given creation for a period of time and restrain copying by others. The result is that the creator, and not the copyist, enjoys whatever profits may flow from the innovation. Knowing this, the creator is encouraged to create. We will call this basic approach the monopoly theory of innovation,” said the duo.
The book suggests a path forward for the music industry that relies less on tough copyright laws and more on some of the strategies employed by other industries covered in the book.
“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.”
The research suggests that in many instances, copying and creativity can co-exist. The relationship between imitation and innovation is much more subtle than commonly believed. The book helps to show how the process of using the creative energy of others is important for creativity.