Burn the ships, we’re here to stay
There’s no way we could go back
Now that we’ve come this far by faith
Burn the ships, we’ve passed the point of no return
Our life is here
So let the ships burn

~Burn the Ships (lyrics) by Steven Curtis Chapman and James Isaac Elliott

The phrase “Burn The Ships” comes from history when, in 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro (Hernando Cortez) landed in Mexico on the shores of the Yucatan intent on claiming the treasures of the Aztecs. Cortés was committed to his mission and his quest for riches is legendary. With just 500 soldiers and 100 sailors in 11 ships, Cortés set out to overtake the Aztec empire.

Knowing that they faced incredible odds, Cortés changed the game to do or die by ordering his men to “Burn the Ships”. That is, Cortés and his men burned their own ships saying that “if we are going home, we are going home in their ships”. Thus, providing ultimate motivation by giving themselves no way out. No fall back position. Cortés ultimately succeeded. Depending on how you view it, Cortés was either an awesome motivational leader or an insane megalomaniac who held little or no value in the lives and well being of his companions — or the Aztecs.

519rz3b6n9l_sl500_aa240_Now, a new book offers lessons for on the struggles between innovation and intellectual property called “Burning the Ships: Intellectual Property and the Transformation of Microsoft,” by Marshall Phelps and David Kline (John Wiley & Sons). “Burning the Ships” recounts Phelps’ behind-the-scenes account of how he overcame internal resistance and got Microsoft to embrace collaboration with other firms. The story details how Microsoft went from continually on the defensive — from anti-trust suits and IP litigation — to succeeding in the emerging era of “open innovation” by collaboration and cooperation.

Microsoft founder and Chairman Bill Gates (presumably like Cortez burning his ships at the shores of the New World) decided to embrace change and recruited Marshall Phelps who helped monetize IBM’s IP portfolio (another behemoth that thought might makes right).  Phelps, coming out of retirement, was put to task on a new “collaboration imperative” for leveraging intellectual property.  It shows that being the biggest doesn’t mean you don’t need others — like it or not.

The authors provide some behind-the-scenes look at what led up to Microsoft agreements with Novell, Toshiba and others — as well as agreements that didn’t go through such as with Red Hat, which decided not to reach an agreement after a year and a half of negotiations. The book details how difficult it was to reach an agreement over Linux without violating the licensing terms of the GNU open-source operating system.

There are plenty of lessons in this book for executives in every industry where accessing previously untapped intellectual property can open up new business opportunities. The irony is not lost on anyone that Phelps trumpets that Microsoft is a regular target for firms claiming Microsoft violates their IP rights, suggesting that Microsoft may be the one with an IP problem, not open source.

The bias shows through as the book describes how “the patent gold digging to on comic overtones.”  Yes, there is patent gold-digging but the lack of respect for intellectual property rights comes through when quoting Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s CTO, decrying “So every time one of these companies came be to assert their patents against us, it would cost us money.  Sometimes 50 or 100 million dollars.  And that’s a lot of zeros to give away just because someone else has patents and you don’t.”  Waaaahhh.

Burning the Ships does show that collaboration is imperative, whether you like it or not.  It also distinctly points out that leadership starts at the top and that  company CEOs need to understand IP as a business strategy and not just a legal function.

While interesting in its glimpse inside the word’s largest software company’s inner workings, it feels a little contrived.  Many of the cited quotations come off sounding a lot like they were crafted by unimaginative marketing folks.  For example, Phelps writes about receiving a phone call from Gates while out golfing that goes like this:

“Hi, Marshall, this is Bill Gates.  I know that Brad [Smith] spoke with you yesterday about the offer.  But I just wanted to reinforce our hope that you’ll come to Microsoft and help us with this really big challenge that we’re facing.”

And then music played and children danced. Like Cortés, history is often written by the victors.

Burning the Ships: Intellectual Property and the Transformation of Microsoft is available from Amazon.

Marshall Phelps is Microsoft’s corporate vice president for intellectual property policy and strategy and is responsible for setting the global intellectual property strategies and policies for the company.  David Kline is a journalist, author, and intellectual property consultant who has earned acclaim for his best-selling book, Rembrandts in the Attic.

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