My ideas, my boss's property

A world where what is fair and what is law diverge so markedly raises a number of important moral, legal and economic questions, the most basic and important of which is: How does a reality in which we own so little of what we create affect our drive to make something new and original?

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To answer this question, the marketing professor On Amir and I researched how ownership over our skills and creative ventures affects our motivation to perform. In a study published this year in the Harvard Business Review, we reported on a series of behavioral experiments in which we asked over a thousand participants to perform various tasks and solve problems.

We divided the subjects into two groups. We told one set that they were free to later perform similar work for other “employers” in the virtual workplace of our experiment. We asked the others to sign over ownership of their skills to, and sign noncompete agreements with, their current “employers.”

All of the participants were assured that they would be paid for the tasks they performed in the experiment. But the effects of giving up future control over one’s own skills and products of the mind were significant. When we asked participants to relinquish ownership of their skills, they became less focused on the problem, spent less time on the task and made twice as many errors as the unconstrained group.

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