Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
They Will Steal Your Idea. They Cannot Steal What Really Matters. (jasonlbaptiste.com)
124 points by jasonlbaptiste on July 20, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

Here's an idea: try creating the compound Ba-La-Cu-O. It's a pretty simple idea. It can be explained in seconds. Any competent chemist can do it, and probably a lot of incompetent ones as well. But in 1986 that idea was the key step in a Nobel Prize. And it may yet turn out to be the foundation for a massive industry. Sometimes, the idea is nearly all that matters.

The fact that the idea is 24 years old and has yet to properly establish itself kinda refutes the fact that it's all that matters, doesn't it?

I guess if you view winning a Nobel Prize as a failure, then yes, you've refuted my example. I doubt more than a tiny fraction of people would consider that a failure, however.

Ideas can, in fact, have value, and that is a function of scarcity. A lot of entrepreneurs apparently misjudge this, thinking that, for example, their idea to create a social network for X (insert verb of choice) is somehow valuable in its own right. But in most cases X is so generic that it's not. The superconductor example I gave is an example where there really is a scarcity, and so there is value.

> I guess if you view winning a Nobel Prize as a failure, then yes, you've refuted my example. I doubt more than a tiny fraction of people would consider that a failure, however.

The point is that a Nobel prize, like VC funding, is not a biz success. It's an "attaboy" with some money attached. And for the VC funding, they expect biz success later.

I'm not saying that ideas have no value whatsoever, because clearly a bad idea properly executed can still be a bad idea.

What I am saying though is that there are few ideas that can be not executed and/or executed poorly and still render a success.

Of course success is variable, as you point out with regards to the Nobel Prize here. Assume somebody does execute a strategy to effectively monetize the superconductor described. As you point out that's a game changer on levels that will make the Nobel Prize seem rather small.

I agree, on all fronts.

"Ideas don't matter, only execution does" is just a pet peeve. It's as obviously false as the notion some people have that their (totally obvious) idea is really valuable.

I like Derek Sivers formulation: ideas are a multiplier on execution. With a really amazing idea (like the formula for the first high-Tc superconductors) even run-of-the-mill execution yields big returns.

No, that wasn't an idea, it was a discovery.

The original idea was, "Let's look for a substance with infinite resistance at low enough temperatures."

They got lucky and found the exact opposite of what they were trying to get.

I can assure you they were not the first people to dream up the concept of superconductivity. (In fact Heike Onnes first observed superconductivity in frozen mercury in 1911). And even if they were, as an idea it's still worthless. My idea for a product is an anti-gravity machine. So what? Unless I can figure out how to do it, the idea is worthless. It's discovering how do it that counts.

You missed the point entirely.

My point is that they weren't even looking for a superconductor. They were on a fishing expedition for a perfect resistor. As a result they took lots of interesting compounds, cooled them well below the temperature of liquid nitrogen, tried to run a current through them, and checked for resistance.

The actual idea that they had? Nobody has succeeded in finding that yet.

And this is the reason the abolishment of Intellectual Property won't make the world any more chaotic or unfair.

Ideas are meant to be shared, and the market competitiveness will reward the ones that best execute them.

Copyright doesn't cover ideas. It covers the execution of ideas. So if you're going to abolish stuff that merely protects ideas, leave copyright alone.

That was the intention of copyright, anyways. It's gotten a bit beyond that, to the point that an idea can be copyrighted if phrased correctly. Requiring a working model to be submitted with every application would go a good way towards fixing that issue.

You seem to be confusing copyright and patents.

Neither of which can protect an idea.

Law concerning Trade Secrets comes closest to protecting an idea. But that doesn't preclude parallel development whatsoever, only theft.

... yes, it seems that I did. Too late for me to edit it, too, so I can't retract the statement and remove any potential confusion (and my own embarrassment). My apologies.

I'm not intimately familiar with the process, but I was unaware that there was such a thing as copyright applications, let alone working models of something that pertains to copyright.

If by application you mean registration, then yes, it is required for some purposes, at least in the US:


the abolishment of Intellectual Property won't make the world any more chaotic or unfair

Unfortunately, this is not true. Yes, it all begins with an idea but that idea takes tangible form at some point and it takes money, work, and ingenuity to give it that tangible form. And, while our minds can freely conceive away at the idea stage, it takes a lot more than that to execute. When we do, we create value. If the law does not protect that value for its creator, everybody suffers.

Take a fictional animated character. Pixar's Toy Story characters all no doubt had limited value as mere abstractions when first proposed but today have enormous value after having appeared in several hit movies, having been made larger-than-life by imaginative scripting, and having been powered by mega-marketing dollars into vivid images that millions of people can identify and relate to.

Someone can and will profit from the value embodied by those animated characters.

If it were not for the protections of copyright law, the creators of those characters would be robbed of the value of what they have created. The thousands of hours of work they put into developing the story lines, into shaping the animations, and into the countless other tasks that took years to accomplish would ultimately be diluted or wasted at any time that any knock-off artist decided to take those same characters and exploit them commercially as his own. And, without copyright protection, any person would be free to do so. He could not only distribute unauthorized versions of the movies themselves but he could also make his own movies (or books, commercials, or whatever) based on those exact same characters.

Copyright law blocks such efforts and gives he owner of the copyright the exclusive right to exploit the creations he has made, both as embodied in existing works and as used in future derivative works.

Without copyright, every fictional creation would be up for grabs by anybody without any accountability to the original creator. This would apply to books as well. Anybody could do a Harry Potter book and seek to exploit the value built up by the author of that character. Conceivably, there could even be thousands of books about that character, to the point where the value of the original was so diluted as to be destroyed. No one could control the quality because no one has any rights to the intangible property represented by that character. It is all shared. Everybody owns it and nobody does. This means, of course, that no matter how much time, effort, money, and ingenuity that someone invested to make something valuable in a work of fiction, that value could be taken or destroyed by anybody who had a mind to want to try to capitalize on it.

I think such a system would be deeply unfair to creators of such works. It took a lot for them to give their ideas value. That value should be protected and not be exposed to misappropriation or destruction just because it is now easy to make copies of tangible embodiments of their creative efforts.

I will grant that this is not all one-sided. IP rights have been abused, and often badly so. The ludicrous extensions of copyright terms for the benefit of Disney are but one of a host of examples.

But the world would be more chaotic and more unfair if those who create intangible value have no way under law to protect that value for themselves. IP protections give them that ability. To abolish such protections would have many and varied consequences, most of them bad for those who take great ideas and give them great implementations.

While I agree that there is a net benefit to granting some form of exclusivity to creators, much of your argument appears to address a hypothetical world in which the current protections are suddenly replaced with none at all.

I'd be very interested in a consideration of what would happen a hundred years later, when copyright is just a historical footnote on Wikipedia. Would there still be superstars of creation (like Pixar, Rowling, etc.) who find new ways of exploiting their creations? Or would we eventually find a way to crowdsource enormous cinematic and literary creations, with, as you said, the creation being owned by everybody and nobody? Would society as a whole benefit in the long term, despite losing out on the future creations of our current creative powerhouses?

I hear lots of people talk about how their idea is some competitive advantage. Ideas are cheap. Ideas can be stolen. It's how you execute that counts, and that's what Jason's post drives home. Nicely done.

There are some fashionable memes running through entrepreneurship circles these days that are routinely mentioned in blogs, etc. (fail quick/often, ideas are cheap, etc). They certainly have merit, but are usually generalizations that can break-down when applied to specific situations. This concept of ideas being cheap/worthless is one of them.

Certainly, business ideas on their own usually have little value without execution. But it really depends. If your differentiator is the idea, you are at greater risk of direct competition, and so spreading the idea around without first gaining a foothold is risky, especially if you discuss it with people who are entrepreneurial minded. Sometimes a startup needs breathing room to find a true differentiator beyond the idea. I bet there is a long, long list of people being "wronged" after discussing their plans with others. Feedback is certainly hugely valuable, but people need to be judicious with what, and to whom, they reveal.

"Certainly, business ideas on their own usually have little value without execution. But it really depends. If your differentiator is the idea, you are at greater risk of direct competition, and so spreading the idea around without first gaining a foothold is risky, especially if you discuss it with people who are entrepreneurial minded. Sometimes a startup needs breathing room to find a true differentiator beyond the idea. I bet there is a long, long list of people being "wronged" after discussing their plans with others. Feedback is certainly hugely valuable, but people need to be judicious with what, and to whom, they reveal."

The reason a lot of people say "ideas are cheap" isn't just because there is no problem in spreading them around. I don't know about other people, but I've never had an idea that, once I started to execute on it, didn't change a lot. Since (as far as I can tell) this is almost always the case, spreading the initial idea truly doesn't cost me anything.

Of course, there are fields this isn't true, but this generalization gets thrown around a lot in these circles because, for most people reading these blogs, it's true.

Thank you. I didn't use the phrase "ideas are worthless" on purpose. Reason being, they're worth something (maybe not in a tangible form at least). It's actually hard to find an idea that has the right market size, begging for the right product, which you can build a relevant team around it. Now can people steal the idea? Sure. The points I outlined would probably be sub-sections of execution.

I like to look at ideas as "potential energy". Not necessarily worthless, but hard to tell how much you get out of them until you actually get them rolling.

Business ideas are a dime and a dozens. Technical ideas and solutions are valuable.

Technical solution itself rarely has big value until it resolves some actual business or social problems.

I would not be concerned if I would write a web based product. But I am writing a desktop application in Java. Someone with more resources than me can copy my stuff very fast and beat me before I can get real traction. My most important competitive advantage is in the applied algorithms which I was refactoring so much; it is inside the source code. If they steal that, they not only steal my idea, they steal my execution. Of course they can also do it otherwise, but in that case it last more time. The key is in my opinion being ahead 1-2 years, especially in the beginning. So it might be a good idea to obfuscate the code. On the other hand it is better to be open, so it would be cool if I could ship the complete source code so that customers or consultants could customize my product, (or write plugins) which is quite important in the case of this product.

It is a really hard decision whether to:

- ship only the obfuscated class files

- ship the non-obfuscated class files

- or ship the whole source code with the product.

Being too open too early can be dangerous. Even big companies had problem from being too open (see IBM PC), not to say about a small company which has no traction.

Just because you can't steal what really matters doesn't mean you don't already have it. You could possibly take someone else's idea and execute it better than they would have. What are the odds that the person who came up with the great idea doesn't have the best motivation or resources to make it successful?

A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules. Which is why they have to steal it.

Not if the idea sits in someone's head. The execution is extremely important. I've had ideas that pre-dated devices like the ipad and iphone by 15 years, but because I didn't do anything with those ideas, they were essentially useless.

Now the question is, where is the limit beetween an idea and his execution. If the idea is a vague thing like "a computer that fits in my pocket", then it's just a dream. The most details you have about your idea, the most you're move close its execution.

Humans build cities; or robots that build cities, or robots that build robots that build cities.

Or people that build robots that build city-building robots.

Sorry Jason, but you have no idea what you're talking about here. Having been in the real-life version of that movie for the past six years I have a pretty good notion of what can and cannot be taken away by another, and it's a lot more than what your post would lead people to believe.

I think your experience ILLUSTRATES Jason's points.

(note to others: thinkcomp lays claim to the idea of Facebook: http://nyti.ms/cC0HwJ )

Jason's point boils down to "effort, passion, ambition, execution". While he didn't overtly say it, the point is that ideas are fairly cheap and certainly easy to steal.

IANAL, but I don't think there's much/any INVENTION in Facebook-- And clearly the ideas there are stolen pretty liberally by dozens of companies every day. Hell, Twitter swiped the status update, right?

In a world where many ideas can't (and shouldn't) really be protected (social web software), what determines who wins? Execution, market sense, effort, guts, timing, and vision. Near as I can tell, you lost on all of those fronts. Nothin' bad about that (other than your ongoing focus on it).

I understand where you're coming from since it's strikes a very personal chord with you+facebook (it might only do that for a few other people in the world.) The facebook examples in the post are meant to be small examples within the context there. There's certainly more than meets the eye and I certainly don't have any idea about the details/final arrangements between you and Mark. You could replace the facebook example with other similar examples in business. If you want to refute the arguments with your own personal first hand experiences in the Facebook situation that would be useful.


Here's why I have an issue with your post. Intellectual property theft has a number of effects that directly follow, all of which are serious. You lose:

- Credibility and trust. There's always that hint of distrust when people meet you because they have heard that you have made a claim on person X who "stole" Y from you. They may not know anything about the details, but (they worry) maybe you'll make that same claim again...on them! Worse, if they don't know anything about it but only find out later through rumors, you will probably never hear anything from that person again. Whether or not you are right and whether or not you have evidence, you will always be referred to in the media as the person "who claims that he" _____, not the person "who" _____.

- Credit. If something really was taken from you that you created, chances are you aren't going to be recognized for it.

- Money. If you decide to stand up for yourself it costs a lot of money, typically in the six figures, but certainly no less than five. For the Winklevosses in the movie of course it cost low eight figures (though I'm not making a statement about their claims).

- Health. Anyone who has fought any major legal proceeding knows that it's pretty much guaranteed to have an effect on your health.

- Legal rights. If the person who took the intellectual property later uses a catalyst (like venture capital) to get ahead, you can be left not only minus your work, but also minus legal protections associated with it that are now attributed to the person who took it.

- Social relationships. There are three separate ways social relationships are impaired. If a large number of people become associated with the person who took the intellectual property (likely once again with venture capital), then you will automatically be isolated from those people no matter how decent they themselves may be. Dating is harder (see credibility and trust). Hiring, getting hired, or finding co-founders is harder, too (also see credibility and trust).

- Rebound potential. The only way to negate all of the above, which apply whether you are right or wrong, and whether the facts are available or not, is to become richer than the other person. Otherwise you are basically stuck.

As for the points in your article:

- Long term vision. Irrelevant, it can be supplanted with a different one, for better or for worse.

- Analytical insights. Irrelevant.

- Domain expertise. No, they can't steal it, but it can usually be replicated to some degree.

- Talent. No, they can't steal it, but it can definitely be replicated through other hires.

- Passion for great service? Sorry, but give me a break. What American consumer expects great service these days and will immediately turn away from a company due to a lack of it? Irrelevant.

- Luck. As I've described above, luck is a lot harder to come by in this position.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Sorry, but I just couldn't let this one go.


Credit/Credibility- It's all you frame the situation, but you're right. People will often see you as the one making a claim. The media has a shitty way of framing things, but does that matter? If ConnectU was at least somewhat close to facebook in traffic it would just be more press.

Money- This part sucks. I'm sure you spent a lot of money to defend your claims.

Health- Mental health wise I probably could not go through what you went through.

Legal rights- You can't patent or sue in court for traction. Original FB was probably a mess of code. Would you have wanted that anyway? As for the patents on social networks Pincus and Reid Hoffman owned those anyway. I think the whole notion of legally owning "social networking" is ridiculous.

Social relationships- This part sucks. I've never had to deal with this personally, so it's hard to empathize, but having friends in the middle of the situation sucks. Acquaintances who don't even know the situation must be far worse.

Rebound potential- You're an insanely bright guy, and I'm sure it's taken your toll on you, but you'll continue to succeed regardless.

Points in my article:

-Long term vision: If Mark's goal was to just be thefacebook.com and focus on colleges, it wouldn't be what it is today. Long term vision can come later, but you can't steal it with an idea. Most people steal a snapshot with an idea, not the whole picture.

-Analytical insights: The data points FB had early on (which colleges wanted to be let in the most) were without a doubt valuable. It told them where to open up next.

Domain expertise: Depending on how in depth the problem is there may only be a few experts in the area. If it's a broad thing such as Facebook, you could probably get equal talent. I don't know you well, but I've read a lot of what you put out there. I'd back you technically/logically against the original founders.

Talent: Founding talent is the real DNA of the company. You can replicate it afterwards in hires due to money or being a hot startup.

Passion for great service: It may not make you lose customers, but you will certainly keep them around a whole lot longer. Zappos may have done well even if it were a slimy operation, but I doubt it would have done as well.

Luck: Can't refute that argument.

It's great insight and we disagree on a lot of points, but I didn't go through the same experience you did. I don't write to have people agree or stay silent. I write for people to bring up thought, especially someone I respect like yourself who has deep understanding of the topic at hand.


Aaron! Hello again. We seem to cross paths on Hacker News once every six months, with you writing about Zuckerberg sucking and me writing that I'd like for you to forgo those feelings a tiny bit so you can be more successful in life. We usually both make good points and nothing changes.

But - since last time I have learned a new term:


"Locus of control in social psychology refers to the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them. Understanding of the concept was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954, and has since become an important aspect of personality studies.

Individuals with a high internal locus of control believe that events result primarily from their own behavior and actions. Those with a high external locus of control believe that powerful others, fate, or chance primarily determine events."

Now, a theme of your postings is that your credit, money, health, social relationships, and rebound potential have been hosed.

This may be true - however, it might also be disempowering and not serving your goals. How often do you think about this? I'm guessing - rather a lot more than is optimal for you to thrive in life on your terms.

Anyone would be pissed in your situation. Anyone. But everyone successful gets a significant betrayal or two along the way. I'd recommend you assert more control over your life and shrug off the Facebook thing as much as possible. Reliving it, commenting on it, writing about it in newspapers, writing a book about it - does that really serve your goals? Really? Your most important goals?

I said it before and I'll say it again - you're a talented dude. That talent could almost certainly be deployed in better ways than anti-Facebooking, you could be making yourself more wealthy, successful, happy, prosperous - and you could be doing that for your family, friends, and loved ones. Something to consider.

Best wishes as always. Rooting for you.

Hi. Since you always seem to give me unsolicited advice, allow me to give you some:

I've never met you and you clearly don't know me. Strongly consider the limits of your actual knowledge concerning my actual position, versus what I choose to share in a public forum in generic terms, before telling me what I should do to change my actual life. Also consider that your rather personal criticisms, however well-intentioned, may be construed by others to imply that you actually do know me, when you don't.

I'm using my talent to build my company (http://www.thinkcomputer.com) if that's not already clear. As I've also made clear before, I can do that and comment on things about which I'm uniquely knowledgeable at the same time. And if you don't like it, tough.

The thing about idea theft is all too often the person it was stolen from wouldn't have been able to make it work in the first place. And here, it seems, is a shining case in point.

I think Jason knows exactly what he's talking about. After reading this: http://www.aarongreenspan.com/letter/index.html and this: http://venturebeat.com/2007/09/02/who-founded-facebook-aaron... The quote seems very fitting towards you. I understand that this may come off harshly, but I believe it: it's a good thing Mark didn't take the advice you gave in your open letter.

Unfortunately you are quite wrong.

Fortunately by the rules you apparently play by, I need not provide any evidence or explanation to such a declaration, just the smug empty statement itself.

Edit: the original parent said (from memory, maybe not 100% accurate): "Sorry Jason, you don't know what you are talking about here." I wouldn't be so snarky about the edited parent.

I made the edit before you posted, though I guess the statement is still smug and empty in your view.

All the evidence you need is in my profile or pretty easy to find on Google...whereas I don't even know who you are because your profile is blank.

You made the edit while I was posting. The edited post is different, like I have mentioned. My reply was to the original.

It's a classic concurrency problem.

A = thinkcomp, B = me:

  A posts
  A starts editing (1)
  B starts replying (2)
  A finishes editing (and sees no reply)
  B finishes replying (and sees edit)
  B edits his post
  * (1) and (2) can be reversed for this point to be the same
Based on this sequence, there it is reasonable for you to think I was replying to your edited post. It is not the case tho, please take my word for it. HN provides no way for me to know that you are editing as I write.

As for profile etc, you are the one making the claim, it is your responsibility to present qualifying references if you want me to think your statements are valid, not my job to chase down the source of every 2 sentence comment on HN.

if you're going to call him out.. would be nice for more explanation of your situation.

I put it in a different comment, but here's the guy's story: http://nyti.ms/cC0HwJ

He was competing with Facebook in the early days (and had a service that predated it at Harvard by 4 months).

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact