Given that all ideas and knowledge often gain their value from having currency, they yield no value to the originator if they are not disseminated in some form.

Likewise from a more altruistic perspective, society – and the world at large – is unable to benefit from the knowledge of an innovator if they do not share it in some way.

The boundaries that deliniate the propagation and spreading of knowledge from its unlawful (or unfair?) misuse through theft are often not as clear as both the originators and re-users of knowledge may like it to be.

Academics, for example, often do not plan or stand to make a direct profit from the ideas that they hold. They publish their works, knowing well that it is past research combined with a unique set of experiences that has afforded them the background and knowledge to produce a potentially innovative idea.

Yet while the copying of physical goods (such as the pirating of CDs and DVDs, or counterfeit branded goods) seems to represent a more blatant infringement than would a movie director taking an idea from film she has previously seen, or a fashion designer using older designs as the basis for new ones, ideas themselves are still very much subject to litigation.

On the 8 March 2007, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun 3M in the US have brought a case of patent infringement to the US International Trade Commission (ITC) against 11 Japanese, American, and Chinese companies including Sony, Hitachi, Matsushita, and Renbo. According to the article (on page 3 of the evening edition), 3M had developed cathodes that allowed for the safe and stable recharging of lithium ion batteries, receiving 2 patents in November 2005. 3M believes the batteries used in the above firms laptop computers now infringes on this patent and are calling for their importation and sale to be stopped.

While high-tech/IT industries are bound to be fraught with IP litigation, the fashion industry provides an example of a sector that does not exhibit such a trend in protecting Intellectual Property Rights and litigating against its infringement (so far as the ‘ideas’ are concerned).

An article in the Taipei Times outlines a paper published by Raustiala and Sprigman, which explains how the fashion industry functions without much IPR protection.

The fashion industry can survive without intellectual property protection because of two interacting factors that they refer to as “induced obsolescence” and “anchoring.”

Raustiala and Sprigman argue that this very lack of intellectual property protection actually promotes the vibrancy of the industry.

So while it is bound to be context and industry-specific, the extent to which learning, referencing, and even ‘honouring’ can be separated from the acts of mimicking, copying, and stealing, is still an open question.