Cupcake Innovation

This week's Pop City features a colorful piece on "Innovation" and what a wonderful thing it is, too, for cities and universities and people who inhabit both.

As someone who studies creativity and innovation for a living, this sort of thing always makes me nervous, because "innovation" has an inescapable "I know it when I see it" character. Innovation is hard to define, and it's hard to measure, and it's especially hard to figure out how to get more of it. Look at the huge patent law case now pending in the Supreme Court, KSR v. Teleflex, which was argued yesterday. American patent law requires that inventors can patente inventions that are "nonobvious." (Patent laws in other countries have similar requirements but use somewhat less obtuse language.) What is "obvious"? What is "nonobvious"? Patent lawyers and patent judges have spent more than a century trying to figure this out, and the best they can do, really, is "I know it when I see it." The transcript of yesterday's oral argument in KSR is online here, and what you read is three very accomplished, sophisticated advocates (one for each side, plus one for the federal government) in dialogue with some federal judges who understand deeply what's at stake (and a couple of federal judges who don't). The stakes couldn't be bigger -- yet there is an astonishing lack of consensus about how the patent system should behave.

We like innovation (and "we" means not just Pittsburgh, but society in general), and we like it a lot, and it is certainly worth celebrating that Pitt and CMU rake in tons of federal research dollars and have managed to attract major private R&D efforts from the likes of Intel, Google, Seagate, and Siemens, among other firms. Cupcakes, of course, are part of this equation, too, but cupcake innovation seems to have little to do with intellectual property law. For more on that, see my post here.

But does it all really add up to anything in terms of regional growth? I hope so, but in the end, who knows?


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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