Re-Fighting the Last IP War: Dot-Com Ideas in the 21st Century

By Joseph E. Root

Generals are often accused of re-fighting the last war, and sometimes they are.  During the 1930s, André Maginot and the French general staff were horrified at the specter of a return to the trench warfare of World War I, so they build a series of impregnable fortifications, designed to safeguard the Republic into the distant future.  He expected to be remembered as the savior of France; instead, he became an icon for backward-looking strategy, when the Germans moved tanks through the “impassable” Ardennes, substituted dive bombers for artillery, and overran France in a matter of weeks.

Old strategy is considerably harder to replace than old weapons.  By 1965 the US employed few World War II armaments, but it was determined to apply the “lesson” of Munich by standing firm against the tide of Communism in Vietnam.  A generation later the same reasoning can be heard about Iraq, on both sides.

Figuring out the lessons of history is the real job of the strategist, and it’s hard.  Take a straightforward question:  Would the US leaving Iraq in 2007 be more like the US leaving Vietnam in 1975, an act with relatively small geopolitical ramifications, or like the Soviets leaving Afghanistan in 1989, an act of utmost consequence both for the Soviets themselves and for the jihadis they left behind.  One of those analogies is more correct, but which one?

At least, the generals cited so far were re-fighting battles they had won, the first time around.  How smart is it to hang on to a losing strategy?  In the normal course of history, the losers figure out what happened, come up with a better solution, and at least do better the next time.  After losing WWI, the Germans thought about the problems of trench warfare, and their innovations swept the field in 1940. They had fewer and poorer tanks and aircraft, but they had developed superior tactics, strategy and execution.   Contrast them to the punching bags of history, generals who lost time and again without a glimmer of insight.  The Austrians never had a clue what Napoleon was up to, and Union commander George McClellan never understood Robert E. Lee, so the Austrians and McClellan both got drubbed, repeatedly.

IP strategy seems to fit the latter mold, sad to say.  The dot-com era reads like a corporate version of Napoleon’s Ulm-Austerlitz campaign of 1805, with corporations playing the Austrians, watching in helplessly as Napoleon first surrounded and captured one army and then executed a tactical masterpiece to rout another.  The dot-com battles of the 1990s saw fortunes and reputations made, first in Silicon Valley, followed by Silicon Alley and other clones springing up across the landscape.  Then the crash took it all back, leaving a trail of empty office buildings, with idle fussball tables and worthless stock options.

Almost a decade later, what lessons have we, the IP community, drawn from those events?  Based on the way we are approaching today’s battles, not many.  It’s time to start that process. This article focuses on ideas that animated the dot-com era, but which proved ultimately disastrous.

IP in the Age of Dot-Coms

The relationship between the Internet phenomenon and the Intellectual Capital movement is a story for another time and venue.[i]  For present purposes, suffice it to note that this line of thinking, spearheaded by people such as Patrick Sullivan from the consulting / academic world, James O’Shaughnessey from the corporate sphere, and Thomas Stewart from journalism sought to refocus attention from physical to intellectual assets.  The phrase “from bricks to clicks” encapsulates their idea and demonstrates their influence.

The very essence of dot-com era IP was distilled into a single book, Rembrandts in the Attic,[ii] published in late 1999, almost exactly at the high tide mark.  Describing this book as the most influential and popular ever written about IP falls well short of doing it justice.  “Crossover” is a word that fits, suggesting its broad appeal to IP professionals as well as business people, technical managers and the person on the street.  Readable, succinct and direct, it pulls no punches in describing exactly how one should – no, must – use IP to achieve success.

Rembrandts so perfectly captures the spirit and the process of the dot- com era that it provides a window and a point of analysis for the age.  The book does not generalize, but one can dig below the level of prescriptive commands to extract three fundamental concepts.  First, IP is the key to corporate success.  Those who use IP correctly will win.  Second, IP strategy is the central task of modern management.  Successful corporations must find and nurture managers who understand IP.  Finally, firms must pursue and enforce IP rights, particularly in key business processes.

These ideas were presented as the IP equivalent to the atomic bomb.  In retrospect, they seem closer to Maginot than to Oppenheimer.

IP as Panacea

Central to the Rembrandts message is the notion that IP, and patents in particular, is the most important factor in corporate success.  Headings tell the story:  “Without patents, the future of your business may be owned by someone else,” “Billions at stake in e-commerce patent rights,” “Patents will be key in determining winners and losers in business competition.” Manufacturing, sales and other management skills no longer matter, as “inventors who once tried to build better mousetraps today nurture the hope simply of coming up with an idea for one.”

The narrative explains that model new age business produces IP, not products, either directly, like Walker Digital, or as a trading commodity, like Yet2.com  A featured example is Real3D, a Lockheed spin-off consisting entirely of hitherto-unused flight simulator patents.  As described, “a group of fallow patents valued on Lockheed’s books at exactly zero was turned into a 40 percent stake in Real3D that is today worth upward of $100 million.”[iii]

This mode of thought is well illustrated by an historical analogy suggested by the Rembrandts introduction, comparing changes in the IP environment to “the World War II-era advances in long-range bomber and carrier design that enabled nations for the first time to project their air power anywhere on earth.”  The analogy to strategic bombing, particularly in the European Theater of World War II is highly pertinent, because both notions – the primacy of strategic bombing and that of IP – present clear examples of self-proclaimed panaceas that didn’t pan out..

Between the World Wars, airpower advocates in both the US and Britain had developed a doctrine that a war could be won, quickly, by heavy bombers, without any assistance from other forces, air, naval or ground.  American planners had devised a chokepoint approach, called “industrial web theory,” and their detailed calculations proved, for example, that New York could be completely immobilized, for months, with as few as 18 500-lb. bombs.[iv]   The strategy reduced to British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s dictum, “the bomber will always get through.” [v]

It didn’t.  The RAF quickly suffered heavy losses and abandoned daylight bombardment.  That precluded any precision, of course, rapidly leaving the RAF aiming at cities, not factories.  The target had supposedly become the workers’ homes, destruction of which would destroy morale.  The US Army Air Forces brought a stronger commitment to daylight precision bombardment, and with the B-17 Flying Fortress, it seemed to have the right weapon for that mission.  In late 1943 both the Americans and British put their theories to the test in coordinated assaults.  The Americans struck deep into Germany in a series of attacks culminating on the infamous Black Thursday raid against the Schweinfurt ball bearing works.  On that day 357 B-17’s that penetrated German airspace; 65 failed to return, and 17 more were so damaged that they never flew again.  In the same period the RAF mounted their “Main Offensive”, climaxing in 19 heavy attacks on Berlin, fully expecting to knock Germany out of the war.  To the contrary, Berlin suffered only minor damage, and the RAF lost over 600 bombers.  Without help, the bomber did not in fact get through.

That is not to say that heavy bombers made no contribution to victory in Europe.  They played an important part, but they did it with the assistance of fighter escorts, and the Army Ground Forces, and the Navy.  Toward the end of the war, with virtually no opposition and rapidly increasing numbers of available bombers, American B-17’s and British Lancasters reduced the Nazi fuel supplies to a trickle and strangled the transportation system.  By the time these effects began to be achieved, however, ground forces of the US / British armies from the West and the Red Army from the East had broken through to the Reich itself.

Allied strategic bombing was based on the premise that heavy bombers could penetrate enemy airspace, effectively destroy targets, and return to base without unacceptable loss.  That strategy claimed priority for itself, absorbing tremendous quantities of resources, as well as horrific casualties.  The bombing campaign cost the British some 55,000 aircrew, about the number of officers lost on the Western Front in WWI.  What the bombing did achieve was the deaths of over 500,000 German civilians and the utter devastation of German cities.

That strategy suffered from reliance on a panacea.   Bomber advocates were true believers; they sincerely thought they held the key to victory.  So, they oversold successes, minimized failures, and saw every fact through the prism of preconceived doctrine.  As General Jimmy Doolittle said in 1945, “we talked about air power in terms of promise and prophecy instead of in terms of demonstration and experience.”[vi]

Unescorted patents in the dot-com wars didn’t fare any better than the bombers.  Rembrandts’ description of Real3D’s worth was actually obsolete when published, as that company had in the meantime closed its doors, dogged by failures to execute on actual products and a profitable business model.[vii]  Yet2.com, a widely-hailed platform for trading IP, survived, though it largely disappeared from sight.  It scaled back operations from 30 employees to around 20, and it never went public.[viii]  And most spectacularly, of all, the story of Walker Digital is set out below.

Rembrandts was vocal, and it was influential, in preaching the IP gospel, but it was not alone.  Consider the following:

  • [People need] to start recognizing that measuring and strategically managing intellectual capital may in fact become the most important managerial activity as we enter the third millennium.[ix]
  • Intellectual property has become a principal driver of the world economy. Those who harness the power of intellectual property will succeed and thrive in that economy; those who don’t will not.[x]
  • Intellectual property, in all its myriad forms, has become the leading product of the U.S. economy.[xi]

Switch the context and it would be difficult to separate the airpower advocates from the IP theorists.  Give us everything we ask, they both say, and do as we say, and victory will follow.  In reality, promise and prophecy fell short when put to the test in both cases.

IP Management as Critical to Success

Rembrandts second notion held that companies require managers who understand (and believe in) IP.  Starting with the entrepreneur and working down through the CEO, management and the entire company, the modern corporation will be successful if, and only if, managers live and breathe IP.

Rembrandts offered role models proving the efficacy of that idea, led by the bold entrepreneur, who took great ideas, patented them quickly, and then extracted value all the way to the bank.   Jay Walker epitomized this model, and his company, Walker Digital, was presented as “an intellectual property laboratory modeled after Thomas Edison’s” lab. Aimed at generating not products but companies, Walker Digital first spun off Priceline.com, receiving stock that after only a year was worth “a phenomenal 1 billion.”

Also required was a CEO who “got it,” who understood the crucial position of IP and


[i] A short history of the Intellectual Capital movement, by the present author, can be found at Joseph E. Root, “Rembrandts in the Rear View Mirror: The Demise of Intellectual Capital”, Intellectual Property Today 34, November 2007.

[ii] Kevin Rivette, & David Kline, Rembrandts in the Attic (1999) [hereinafter Rembrandts].

[iii] Id. at 9, 162.

[iv] John K. McMullen,  The United States Strategic Bombing Survey & Air Force Doctrine,  Air U. (Thesis, Air U.), June 2001,  at 10, https://research.maxwell.af.mil/papers/ay2001/saas/mcmullen.pdf

[v] The story of the Schweinfurt raids is presented in Martin Caidin, Black Thursday (1960). The British bomber

offensive aimed at Berlin is covered in Martin Middlebrook, The Berlin Raids (1988), which concluded, “The Luftwaffe hurt Bomber Command more than Bomber Command hurt Berlin.” Id. at 325.

[vi] See, Brian W. Tonnell, “Will the Bomber Always Get Through? The Air Force & its Reliance on Technology,” Thesis Presented to the faculty of the US Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies, Jun. 2002, at 1, http://www.stormingmedia.us/. The German civilian point of view is set out for the first time in Jörg Friedrich, Der Brand (2002). This book tells the story of the civilian targets themselves, not of the attackers or defenders. It is now available in English under the title “The Fire.”

[vii] Tony Smith, “Real3D Dead – Intel Buys the Bones,” The Register, Oct. 21, 1999, http://www.theregister.co.uk/1999/10/21/real3d_dead_intel_buys_bones/ ; “Real3D Collapses,” The WAVE Report, Oct. 1999, http://www.wave-report.com/wave-report-links/1999.htm.

[viii] Business profile, Yet2.com, Manta.com website, http://www.manta.com/coms2/dnbcompany_f4br7k; The company founder and CEO is a member of the DuPont family, and a strong relationship with that company has continued.   Om Malik, “Technology’s Clearinghouse: Yet2.com,” Forbes, Feb. 7, 2000, http://www.forbes.com.

[ix] Nick Bontis,  Managing Organizational Knowledge by Diagnosing Intellectual Capital:  Framing & Advancing the State of the Field,  in Managing Organizational Knowledge (2001) at 271,  293, http://www.leighbureau.com

[x] Richard S.  Florsheim, The Future of IP:  Intellectual Capital Management 1  (2001).

[xi] Alan Murray, Protecting Ideas is Crucial for U.S. Business,  The Wall Street J.,  Nov 10, 2005

[This post originally appeared in Intellectual Property Today.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: