Mises Wire

Home | Blog | Yet Another Study Finds Patents Do Not Encourage Innovation

Yet Another Study Finds Patents Do Not Encourage Innovation


Study Finds Patent Systems May Not Be an Effective Incentive to Encourage Invention of New Technologies reports:

A new study published in The Columbia Science and Technology Law Review challenges the traditional view that patents foster innovation, suggesting instead that patents may harm new technology, economic activity, and societal wealth. These results may have important policy implications because many countries count on patent systems to spur new technology and promote economic growth.

The study is: Patents and the Regress of Useful Arts, by Dr. Andrew W. Torrance & Dr. Bill Tomlinson, Colum. Sci. & Tech. L. Rev. 10 (2009): 130 (Published May 15, 2009).

As those familiar with my libertarian and IP views know, I'm not a utilitarian (see my There's No Such Thing As A Free Patent; Against Intellectual Property); but almost all IP proponents are, and claim that IP is "worth it" because it generates additional innovation the value of which is implicitly presumed to be obviously much greater than the relatively trivial cost of having an IP system. So it is striking that there seems to be no empirical studies or analyses providing conclusive evidence that an IP system is indeed worth the cost. Every study I have ever seen is either neutral or ambivalent, or ends up condemning part or all of IP systems. Utilitarian IP advocates remind of the welfarist liberals skewered by Thomas Sowell in his The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy--liberals continue to advocate policies long after there is overwhelming evidence these policies do not work, even by the naive, socialistic standards of their proponents; likewise, utilitarians keep repeating the mantra that we need patent and copyright to stimulate innovation and creativity, even though every study continues to find the opposite.

For other studies or discussion of same, see, e.g., Study: Free Markets Superior to Patent Monopolies; Kinsella, Revisiting Some Problems With Patents (2007); Bessen & Meurer: Patents Do Not Increase Innovation; There's No Such Thing As A Free Patent (note 10); What are the Costs of the Patent System?; The Intellectual Property Quagmire, or, The Perils of Libertarian Creationism (slides 66 et seq.); Petra Moser, "How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from Nineteenth Century World Fairs," NBER Working Paper 9099 (August 2003) [AER 95(4), Sept. 2005?] (examines innovations exhibited at World's Fairs during the 19th century and concludes that countries with patent systems do not have a higher rate of innovation per capita, but that patents affect the industries in which different countries make their innovations); Cole, Patents and Copyrights: Do the Benefits Exceed the Costs?; Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas (2001); Padraig Dixon & Christine Greenhalgh, The Economics of Intellectual Property: A Review to Identify Themes for Future Research (November 2002); Fritz Machlup, U.S. Senate Subcommittee On Patents, Trademarks & Copyrights, An Economic Review of the Patent System, 85th Cong., 2nd Session, 1958, Study No. 15; Fritz Machlup & Edith Penrose, "The Patent Controversy in the Nineteenth Century," Journal of Economic History 10 (1950), p. 1; Roderick T. Long, "The Libertarian Case Against Intellectual Property Rights," Formulations 3, no. 1 (Autumn 1995); Stephen Breyer, "The Uneasy Case for Copyright: A Study of Copyright in Books, Photocopies, and Computer Programs," Harvard Law Review 84 (1970), p. 281; Wendy J. Gordon, "An Inquiry into the Merits of Copyright: The Challenges of Consistency, Consent, and Encouragement Theory," Stanford Law Review 41 (1989), p. 1343; Jesse Walker, "Copy Catfight: How Intellectual Property Laws Stifle Popular Culture," Reason (March 2000).

See also: Jonathan M. Barnett, Cultivating the Genetic Commons: Imperfect Patent Protection and the Network Model of Innovation, 37 U. San Diego L. Rev. 987, 1008 (2000) ("There is little determinative empirical evidence to settle theoretical speculation over the optimal scope and duration of patent protection.") (citing D.J. Wright, "Optimal patent breadth and length with costly imitation," 17 Intl. J. Industrial Org. 419, 426 (1999)); Robert P. Merges & Richard R. Nelson, "On the Complex Economics of Patent Scope," 90 Colum. L. Rev. 839, 868-870 (1990) (stating that most economic models of patent scope and duration focus on the relation between breadth, duration, and incentives to innovate, without giving serious consideration to the social costs of greater duration and breadth in the form of retarded subsequent improvement)); Tom W. Bell, Prediction Markets for Promoting the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts, 14 G. Mason L. Rev. (2006):

But [patents and copyrights] for the most part stimulate only superficial research in, and development of, the sciences and useful arts; copyrights and patents largely fail to inspire fundamental progress. ... Patents and copyrights promote the progress of the sciences and useful arts only imperfectly. In particular, those statutory inventions do relatively little to promote fundamental research and development ....

And see Thomas F. Cotter, "Introduction to IP Symposium," 14 Fla. J. Int'l L. 147, 149 (2002) ("[E]mpirical studies fail to provide a firm answer to the question of how much of an incentive [to invent] is necessary or, more generally, how the benefits of patent protection compare to the costs."); Mark A. Lemley, Rational Ignorance at the Patent Office, 95 Northwestern U. L. Rev. (2001), at p. 20 & n. 74:

The patent system intentionally restricts competition in certain technologies to encourage innovation. Doing so imposes a social cost, though the judgment of the patent system is that this cost is outweighed by the benefit to innovation. ... There is a great deal of literature attempting to assess whether that judgment is accurate or not, usually without success. George Priest complained years ago that there was virtually no useful economic evidence addressing the impact of intellectual property. ... Fritz Machlup told Congress that economists had essentially no useful conclusions to draw on the nature of the patent system.

See further Julie Turner, Note, "The Nonmanufacturing Patent Owner: Toward a Theory of Efficient Infringement," 86 Cal. L. Rev. 179, 186-89 (1998) (Turner is dubious about the efficacy of the patent system as a means of inducing invention, and would argue against having a patent system if this were its only justification); F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (U. Chicago Press, 1989), p. 36:

The difference between [copyrights and patents] and other kinds of property rights is this: while ownership of material goods guides the use of scarce means to their most important uses, in the case of immaterial goods such as literary productions and technological inventions the ability to produce them is also limited, yet once they have come into existence, they can be indefinitely multiplied and can be made scarce only by law in order to create an inducement to produce such ideas. Yet it is not obvious that such forced scarcity is the most effective way to stimulate the human creative process. I doubt whether there exists a single great work of literature which we would not possess had the author been unable to obtain an exclusive copyright for it; it seems to me that the case for copyright must rest almost entirely on the circumstance that such exceedingly useful works as encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, and other works of reference could not be produced if, once they existed, they could freely be reproduced. ... Similarly, recurrent re-examinations of the problem have not demonstrated that the obtainability of patents of invention actually enhances the flow of new technical knowledge rather than leading to wasteful concentration of research on problems whose solution in the near future can be foreseen and where, in consequence of the law, anyone who hits upon a solution a moment before the next gains the right to its exclusive use for a prolonged period. [citing Fritz Machlup, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge (1962)]

See also Kinsella, Patents and Innovation, noting economic historian Eric Schiff's conclusion that when the Netherlands and Switzerland temporarily abolished their patent systems, they experienced increased innovation; Petra Moser's finding that countries without patent systems innovate just as much, if not more, than those with patent systems.

For Mises's views on IP, see Mises on Intellectual Property.

Follow Mises Institute

Add Comment