Fast Followers, Copy Cats, and Ripoffs

I was reading about Judge Posner's decision to throw out Apple's patent case against Motorola on CNN Money and came upon this by Florian Mueller:

Apple's "rip-off" claims are right. Judge Posner's decision doesn't prove that there was no "rip-off". He just cannot see that the patents that were shown to him, and the related infringement allegations and damages theories, substantiated a "rip-off" of the illegal kind.

I went on to read a study of accelerator programs on RRW and came upon this:

Finally he had enough data to come up with a ranking. At the top: TechStars, Y Combinator and Excelerate Labs.

Android is very much a iPhone knockoff. And TechStars and Excelerate Labs are very much YC knockoffs. I've written before that I much prefer the opportunity to invest in the innovator not the knock off. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the value of a good knockoff. 

Knockoffs create competition for the innovator and keep them honest. And they provide an opportunity for those that cannot, for some reason, work with the innovator.

Think about the startups that could not get into YC but did get into TechStars or Excelerate and went on to get funded, build a business, and create value for the entrepreneurs. That's a good thing.

Steve Jobs and Paul Graham are the innovators in these two markets and appropriately get the credit for their innovations. Innovators are often outraged when someone rips them off. This is from that CNN Money post on Apple vs Motorola:

This is a useful paragraph because it separates the legal issues at stake from the palpable sense of injustice Steve Jobs felt when he threatened to "go thermonuclear" and told his biographer: "Our lawsuit is saying, 'Google you f***ing ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off."

I have often felt that "palpable sense of injustice" when our firm is an investor in the innovator and a copycat competitor shows up. But there is a difference between being pissed and having a legal claim. If the innovator keeps innovating, as Apple and YC have, they will do fine and will enjoy the spoils that come from creating the category and leading it.

I think it is best to understand that all great innovations will be copied, expect it to happen, and understand that the best response is to go out and out-execute the copycat. Getting stuck in time and money losing litigation may be emotionally satisfying for a while but it often doesn't end well for anyone.