Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Flash of Genius: A Movie Review (sort of)

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

“For three-quarters of a century, the auto industry presented a compelling vision of the future. First Ford, then GM did a great job of persuading people that they knew what they were going to want next. And through technical advances and marketing artifice they made people think that the future was coming. But in the 1970s, they lost that ability to conjure up any vision of the future. Their energy went into fighting regulations and lying about what they could and couldn’t do. They couldn’t sweep the harmful aspects of cars under the rug, and they started to appear grumpy and sad rather than happy.”
- Jamie Kitman, Columnist for Automobile magazine

I can’t honestly say the book Flash of Genius was better than the movie. I never read the book. Flash of Genius (the movie) does take its name from the book. Yet it’s worth noting the book itself is actually a collection of “invention” essays (by John Seabrook), only one of which focuses on automobile wiper revolutionary Bob Kearn’s long fight with Ford Motors. But enough about the book.

For those not familiar with the movie, here’s a quick overview. It’s based on the true story of college professor and part-time inventor Robert Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear) and his long battle with the U.S. automobile industry. Bob Kearns invents a device that would eventually be used in every car in the world – an intermittent windshield wiper. Thinking he’s struck gold, these thoughts are dashed after the auto giants (Ford in particular), who originally embraced Bob’s creation unceremoniously, shunned the man who invented it. Kearns however is determined to receive recognition for his invention. He refuses to compromise his dignity and decides to take on the auto giants. The ensuing legal battle takes upwards of three decades, and along the way Kearns’ obsession drives away some of those who he held most dear. In the end, as expected, Kearns prevails. “But at what personal price?” we are left to contemplate.

The movie is essentially a David vs. Goliath story. I found it mildly entertaining yet fairly predictable. As a viewer, you expect he’ll win the court battle (it’s a Hollywood movie for goodness sake). And these expectations are fulfilled. Yet along the way we’re given a glimpse at the personal toll tenacity can take. The story is both inspirational and cautionary.

At times while watching the movie I couldn’t help get more than a bit perturbed at the depicted actions of Ford Motor Company. The cynic in me can’t help wonder sardonically whether the current state of the U.S. auto industry might have been avoided had the big three spent more time developing innovations rather than trying to steal them. Being a small business operator, and someone whose professional existence is largely predicated on developing great ideas and insights, the thought of someone stealing, profiting, and taking credit for someone else’s creation was unsettling. To its credit, Ford did offer to compensate Kearns for the intermittent windshield wiper invention. Yet they weren’t willing to give him credit, and thus in the movie the monetary offer is largely viewed as legal payoff or hush money of sorts.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think such things don’t actually happen on a regular basis in business (or other aspects of life). And to be honest I don’t really care much if corporations steal from other corporations. This, for better or worse, can simply be written off as “competitive intelligence.” Even Steve Jobs, whom I’ve written about regularly and hold in fairly high esteem for his innovation throughout the years, is unashamed by his (or rather his company’s) appropriation of others’ great ideas. He has oft quoted Pablo Picasso’s now relatively famous (or perhaps infamous) saying “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Here's an excerpt from the documentary film Triumph of the Nerds.



But I take issue when less than honorable actions become more personal and affect individuals. I’m sort of a sucker for the underdog. Is this a double standard? Probably. Fundamentally there really isn’t a difference. Stealing is stealing, right? But do I feel bad about having such a double standard? Probably about as much as the executives at Ford back in the day felt about stealing Bob Kearns’ idea. Which is to say, not really.

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