How important is intellectual property in the digital age? Not very, if the business strategies of industry luminaries like PayPal's Elon Musk and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg are any indication.

Musk, the multi-talented entrepreneur behind PayPal, and more recently Tesla cars and SpaceX, has made it clear he considers Tesla's impressive lead in battery and electric engine technology to be of secondary importance. So much so that he made Tesla's digital platform openly available to outside parties — a move that stunned other car manufacturers.

The creator of Facebook, for his part, has openly published the results of his company's research for years. Zuckerberg has said on numerous occasions that to become profitable, research and development should be shared as widely as possible. The same goes for the large number of digital companies that provide open access to the fruits of their research.

The question here is whether we're entering a new era in which the rules have been dramatically changed and the company strategies of the 20th century are no longer comparatively effective. Several clues seem to suggest that is the case.

Compared to their elders, the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) firms file very few patents. Apple, the world's most valuable company, is only the 15th largest patent source in the United States. As for the most active patent producers — pharmaceutical companies in particular — many think that the age of great discoveries is now behind them.

These days innovation can come from pretty much anywhere. This is perhaps how we should start seeing the world: as a universe of open innovation, where generic knowledge is accessible to all and where disruptive thinking is the quintessence of the innovation process — a playing field that is highly favorable to entrepreneurship and startups.

But if the entry hurdle in the path to innovation is now significantly lower, how can companies of this new era keep their competitors at bay, especially when they're more numerous than before?

Elon Musk getting off a Tesla car in Shanghai on April 23, 2014 — Photo: Pei Xin/Xinhua/ZUMA

The answer, it seems, is to be found in two concepts: the crowd, as the capacity to constantly exchange with multiple communities appears to be the only way to preempt the next step before the competition; and Big Data, which enables real access to all of the future iterations of the crowd.

The future for many of the economic players in our societies could depend on this. For hotels, it could provide a better understanding and anticipation of clients' needs. The same goes for plane and car manufacturers, while for pharmaceutical companies, this could mean selling medical protocols on top of molecules, and so on.

In reality, the difference between companies of the digital age doesn't come from their ability to innovate but rather in the way they use innovation. These companies have understood that the best way to protect an invention is not to patent it, but to use it well and make constant improvements.

And what better way to understand how innovations are used than through data analysis? This is how the people at Tesla know how people use their cars, what's not working well, what people appreciate. Potentially, the whole experience between the consumer and the car can be analyzed.

The same thing goes for Facebook. By observing how its social network platform or its Oculus headsets are used, Mark Zuckerberg's company has at its disposal a worldwide R&D lab. Facebook offers a brilliant example of how those who hold Big Data position themselves to make constant innovations. And that's what this is really all about.

From an anthropological point of view, this is without a doubt one of the most remarkable aspects of this change of eras. It's no longer the "innovation stock" that matters, but how it is used and its constant improvement, its flow. As Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, recently put it, "There's no more effort to innovate, innovation is becoming a continual state and those who haven't grasped this will disappear."

*Gilles Babinet is France's Digital Champion at the European Commission.