My friend and mentor, the late Karl Rohnke, shared a quote with me that inspired the whole trajectory of my career:
“A good idea doesn’t care who it belongs to.”
For the longest time, I had always attributed this quote to Karl, because… it just sounded like something he would say. I am sure I have uttered this phrase and connected it to Karl a thousand times over the years.
Then, recently, I discovered the true source of the phrase, as recorded in Karl’s voluminous writings, some of which are only now being uncovered (more on that another time.) The phrase was in fact coined by Plynn Williams, an illustrator of some of Karl’s early books. Karl clearly liked it enough to quote it in his workshops and books.
This new information caused me to stop and reflect…
Who Actually Owns an Idea?
Broadly speaking, from a legal standpoint, no one can actually own an idea, only the expression thereof. So, for example, the idea of a smartphone can not be owned, but certainly, Apple can copyright their expression of it in the form of an iPhone.
So, when you look at this quote, it is quite accurate – the idea itself does not care who has it because (of course) it does not have feelings. However, humans do have feelings and often care a whole lot about who belongs to what and therefore it is important to acknowledge and respect those folk who create ideas.
As discussed recently with Steve Butler, Karl’s co-author of Quicksilver, we have witnessed many instances of people taking credit for someone else’s ideas, often with unintended or unpleasant consequences.
In short, people do care who has and belongs to an idea.
Take, for example, the people and practitioners of the adventure programming or experiential education field I share.
There are many wonderfully creative people out there, thinking up 100s of new activity ideas and variations all the time. On occasion, I am amazed at how brilliant yet simple the new idea is and wonder why didn’t I think of it myself? But then, sometimes, I think the ‘new’ idea in question is really just a variation of something already in existence belonging to someone else.
I also know of folks who like to “keep their cards close to their chest” because they fear their new idea (or business) will lose something by sharing it. Then there are others who, like Karl, willingly and generously shared whatever they knew, often attributing the source when it was not their own.
Two Intersecting Thoughts
To me, this points to the intersection of two thoughts:
When does a variation of an existing idea become something new?
How far back does one have to acknowledge the source of any idea?
I do not think there are any clear-cut or easy answers to these questions, but I am not so naive as to neglect the fact that there is little new under the sun, either.
In regards to the first question, for my purposes, an activity must be significantly different in construct or outcome to another activity to be known by a different (new) name. For example, The Porthole is not the same as the Spider’s Web even though each proffers a similar objective, ie pass a group through a small opening. Whereas, you generally end up with a variation if all you have done is adjust the parameters of time, resources, space, obstacles, scenario, etc of the original activity.
While I admit there is a lot of grey area between new and old, I do not think that simply changing one aspect of an activity and giving it a different name makes it ‘new.’
Then, in my efforts to draw a line in the sand to respect the dignity of the second question, I can say that every activity featured in playmeo’s online database (of 500+ activities) is acknowledged in at least 2 ways – the source of the idea (often a person, book or video) and the author whose expression of the activity contributed the content.
What Do You Think?
Are my responses reasonable?
I’m sitting in enquiry, so I wonder what you may think.
Login and share in the comments below…
ps: kudos to Steve Butler for nudging me to share our musings about this topic.