Geoffrey C. Orsak
It was good while it lasted. We used to think that we would always own the innovation game. Heck, American giants like Edison, Morse and the brothers Wright practically invented the modern art of innovation. Even though we were appropriately nervous when our manufacturing base began shifting overseas at the end of the last century, in our usual fog of overconfidence, we always assumed the U.S. would own the future.
Well, we ought to be thinking of a back-up plan.
Let me share two stories from the June 2 issue of the "China Daily." Accompanying a photo of a small boy working on a solar-powered car for a school competition is an article with a startling punch line: The director of the Tianjin Intellectual Property Office, who hosted the competition, reports that these young students have filed more than 3,000 patent applications with local authorities over the past two years!
In an adjoining article, the mayor of Zhengzhou lauds his city's designation as a national demonstration city for intellectual property, saying, "Intellectual property has become an increasingly important strategic resource for national development and international competition."
"China Daily" is a state-run newspaper, which makes this a de facto announcement that China intends to pursue and own the big ideas that shape our world. When China talks about national development, they are talking about the potential of harnessing the energy of 1.3 billion minds.
Innovation is the battleground for the future and these stories are indicators that we are losing the home field advantage.
We can be skeptical about the veracity of state-run media, and whether the Chinese government can ever fully embrace the legal protections required of intellectual property. But we also should remember how we scoffed at those early Asian auto imports as we buckle ourselves into Hondas, Toyotas and Kias on our way home from work today.
But let's not sell the U.S. short quite yet. There are exciting examples of young innovative Americans leading the way.
We recently finished up a competition at SMU's Lyle School of Engineering where students from all disciplines were invited to pair up their plans for an invention with an application for a provisional patent. This is old-school cause and effect, teaching our students that if you build something exciting and relevant, you can own it. The winning team designed, built and demonstrated an audio mixing system that allows a sound designer to control the audio tracks in film or music by moving his or her fingers across a glass screen. It was, quite simply, amazing.
This kind of "innovate-then-patent" competition should be an American standard. The reason it is happening in my sandbox is due to a forward-thinking fellow who trained as an engineer and now practices intellectual property law here in Dallas. Because he is in a unique position to understand the importance of owning new ideas, he gratefully sponsored the lion's share of the competition.
In the IP world, it's not just about the about the numbers. It's also about the quality of the patents. It's about giving creative people the space, the opportunity and the financial incentive to do the impossible. Yes, it's nice work if you can get it. Like George Gershwin said, you can get it if you try.
Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at