There has been some blurring of the lines between three distinctly different notions: invention, imitation, and innovation. I can't tell if what I'm seeing is the result of individuals trying to sort out the concepts in order to better understand the nature of innovation, or merely posturing that arises when an imitative company wants to claim that they are innovative, or to discount the innovation of others because it is not an act of invention. Some suggest that the terms need to be redefined for clarity, but I suspect they are fine as they are, and it's merely the way in which they are used that might benefit from a bit of consideration:
Of the three, "invention" is the easiest to define, and probably the most difficult to accomplish: it's typically the sole demesne of the very first person or company to do something, ever. The "typically" is there to qualify instances in which two people come to an independent act of creation, each unaware of the efforts of the other - unless there exists some proof that the second was aware of the first, his act of invention is no less genuine.
The term "imitation" is also fairly simple to define, and the most simple to accomplish: a person or company notices what someone else is doing, and decides to mimic their actions in hopes of achieving the same results. Imitation is looked down upon, and perhaps rightly so, as it's generally the result of an individual of inferior intelligence or insight who is merely copying a pattern of behavior he doesn't understand and putting blind faith in his ability to achieve similar results.
"Innovation," a term much in fashion of late, is a combination of the two. The innovator does not necessarily need to invent anything to act in an innovative manner, and it is by nature an innovation begins with the same observation of the imitator - the difference being that the innovator makes adaptations the act of imitation. That is, he understands what he is seeking to achieve, can perceive the way in which another person is trying to accomplish the goal, and recognize ways in which the original actor's behavior is likely to result in success of failure. And in that way, he can adopt some parts of the process that seem beneficial, and substitute a more effective method for those parts of the process that seem flawed.
The difference between the innovator and the imitator is in his understanding of the connection between cause and effect, and his insight to identifying a more profitable course of action. The innovator adapts the behavior of others to suit his needs, which requires creative intelligence, whereas the imitator merely copies without understanding.
It's probably worth noting, as well, that there is a cultural prejudice against imitation that's not entirely justified. Western culture, particularly the American culture, places great emphasis on individualism, and grants esteem to the intelligence of the inventor and stigmatizes the individual who merely imitates as being stupid and lazy, a species of thief who lives second-hand on the intelligence of others.
However, there is not one penny of profit in prestige ... and quite a lot of it in competing with others by doing things that seem to be generally the same in most respects, but wit ha few critical differences that achieve a better result.
There are innumerable folktales in modern culture of a brilliant inventor who never made a dime on his own intelligence, while others who "took" his idea made for themselves vast fortunes. Perhaps the point of such stories is to reinforce cultural contempt for imitators - though the moral they teach is that it doesn't pay to be smart (another lesson that seems to be taken to heart in the anti-intellectual morass of contemporary American culture.)
But what these stories often neglect to mention is that those who make a fortune on the invention of others are often not mindless imitators, but innovators, who recognized the value of an invention as well as the way in which the inventor was getting it wrong: "If I follow his example, but for the (few) things he is doing wrong, I could be very successful indeed."
And that is the very soul of innovation.