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A patent68 is a grant of monopoly privilege by the government to first discoverers of certain types of inventions.69 Some defenders of patents assert that they are not monopoly privileges but simply property rights in inventions, or even in “ideas.” But in free-market, or libertarian, law everyone's right to property is defended without a patent. If someone has an idea or plan and produces an invention, which is then stolen from his house, the stealing is an act of theft illegal under general law. On the other hand, patents actually invade the property rights of those independent discoverers of an idea or an invention who happen to make the discovery after the patentee. These later inventors and innovators are prevented by force from employing their own ideas and their own property. Furthermore, in a free society the innovator could market his invention and stamp it “copyright,” thereby preventing buyers from reselling the same or a duplicate product.
Patents, therefore, invade rather than defend property rights. The speciousness of the argument that patents protect property rights in ideas is demonstrated by the fact that not all, but only certain types of original ideas, certain types of innovations, are considered legally patentable. Numerous new ideas are never treated as subject to patent grants.
Another common argument for patents is that “society” simply makes a contract with the inventor to purchase his secret, so that “society” will have use of it. But in the first place, “society” could then pay a straight subsidy, or price, to the inventor; it does not have to prevent all later inventors from marketing their inventions in this field. Secondly, there is nothing in the free economy to prevent any individual or group of individuals from purchasing secret inventions from their creators. No monopolistic patent is therefore necessary.
The most popular argument for patents among economists is the utilitarian one that a patent for a certain number of years is necessary to encourage a sufficient amount of research expenditure toward inventions and innovations in new processes and products.
This is a curious argument, because the question immediately arises: By what standard do you judge that research expenditures are “too much,” “too little,” or just about enough? Resources in society are limited, and they may be used for countless alternative ends. By what standards does one determine that certain uses are “excessive,” that certain uses are “insufficient,” etc.? Someone observes that there is little investment in Arizona but a great deal in Pennsylvania; he indignantly asserts that Arizona deserves “more investment.” But what standards can he use to justify such a statement? The market does have a rational standard: the highest money incomes and highest profits, for these may be achieved only through maximum service to the consumers. This principle of maximum service to consumers and producers alike (i.e., to everybody) governs the seemingly mysterious market allocation of resources: how much to devote to one firm or another, to one area or another, to the present or the future, to one good or another, to research rather than other forms of investment. The observer who criticizes this allocation can have no rational standards for decision; he has only his arbitrary whim. This is particularly true of criticism of production relations in contrast to interference with consumption. Someone who chides consumers for buying too many cosmetics may have, rightly or wrongly, some rational basis for his criticism. But someone who thinks that more or less of a certain resource should be used in a certain manner, or that business firms are “too large” or “too small,” or that too much or too little is spent on research or is invested in a new machine, can have no rational basis for his criticism. Businesses, in short, are producing for a market, guided by the valuations of consumers on that market. Outside observers may criticize the ultimate valuations of consumers if they choose—although if they interfere with consumption based on these valuations, they impose a loss of utility upon the consumers—but they cannot legitimately criticize the means, the allocations of factors, by which these ends are served.
Capital funds are limited, as are all other resources, and they must be allocated to various uses, one of which is research expenditures. On the market, rational decisions are made with regard to setting research expenditures, in accordance with the best entrepreneurial expectations of future returns. To subsidize research expenditures by coercion would restrict the satisfaction of consumers and producers on the market.
Many advocates of patents believe that the ordinary competitive processes of the market do not sufficiently encourage the adoption of new processes, and that therefore innovations must be coercively promoted by the government. But the market decides on the rate of introduction of new processes just as it decides on the rate of industrialization of a new geographic area. In fact, this argument for patents is very similar to the “infant industry” argument for tariffs—that market procedures are not sufficient to permit the introduction of worthy new processes. And again the answer is the same: that people must balance the superior productivity of the new processes against the cost of installing them, i.e., against the advantage possessed by the old process in being already in existence. Conferring special coercive privileges upon innovation would needlessly scrap valuable plants already in existence and impose an excessive burden upon consumers.
Nor is it by any means self-evident even that patents encourage an increase in the absolute quantity of research expenditures. But certainly we can say that patents distort the allocation of factors on the type of research being conducted. For while it is true that the first discoverer benefits from the privilege, it is also true that his competitors are excluded from production in the area of the patent for many years. And since a later patent can build on an earlier, related one in the same field, competitors can often be discouraged indefinitely from further research expenditures in the general area covered by the patent. Moreover, the patentee himself is discouraged from engaging in further research in this field, for the privilege permits him to rest on his laurels for the entire period of the patent, with the assurance that no competitor can trespass on his domain. The competitive spur to further research is eliminated. Research expenditures, therefore, are overstimulated in the early stages before anyone has a patent and unduly restricted in the period after the patent is received. In addition, some inventions are considered patentable, while others are not. The patent system thus has the further effect of artificially stimulating research expenditures in the patentable areas, while artificially restricting research in the nonpatentable areas.
As Arnold Plant summed up the problem of competitive research expenditures and innovations:
Neither can it be assumed that inventors would cease to be employed if entrepreneurs lost the monopoly over the use of their inventions. Businesses employ them today for the production of nonpatentable inventions, and they do not do so merely for the profit which priority secures. In active competition ... no business can afford to lag behind its competitors. The reputation of a firm depends upon its ability to keep ahead, to be first in the market with new improvements in its products and new reductions in their prices.70
Finally, of course, the market itself provides an easy and effective course for those who feel that there are not enough expenditures being made in certain directions on the free market. They are free to make these expenditures themselves. Those who would like to see more inventions made and exploited are at liberty to join together and subsidize such efforts in any way they think best. In doing so, they would, as consumers, add resources to the research and invention business. And they would not then be forcing other consumers to lose utility by conferring monopoly grants and distorting the allocation of the market. Their voluntary expenditures would become part of the market and help to express its ultimate consumer valuations. Furthermore, later inventors would not be restricted. The friends of invention could accomplish their aims without calling in the State and imposing losses on the mass of consumers.
Patents, like any monopoly grant, confer a privilege on one and restrict the entry of others, thereby distorting the freely competitive pattern of industry. If the product is sufficiently demanded by the public, the patentee will be able to achieve a monopoly price. Patentees, instead of marketing their invention themselves, may elect either to (1) sell their privilege to another or (2) keep the patent privilege but sell licenses to other firms, permitting them to market the invention. The patent privilege thereby becomes a capitalized monopoly gain. It will tend to sell at the price that capitalizes the expected future monopoly gain to be derived from it. Licensing is equivalent to renting capital, and a license will tend to sell at a price equal to the discounted sum of the rental income that the patent will earn for the period of the license. A system of general licensing is equivalent to a tax on the use of the new process, except that the patentee receives the tax instead of the government. This tax restricts production in comparison with the free market, thereby raising the price of the product and reducing the consumer's standard of living. It also distorts the allocation of resources, keeping factors out of these processes and forcing them to enter less value-productive fields.
Most current critics of patents direct their fire not at the patents themselves, but at alleged “monopolistic abuses” in their use. They fail to realize that the patent itself is the monopoly and that, when someone is granted a monopoly privilege, it should occasion neither surprise nor indignation when he makes full use of it.
- 68. On patents and copyrights, see Man, Economy, and State, pp. 745–54.
- 69. The patent was instituted in England by King Charles I as a transparent means of evading the Parliamentary prohibition of grants of monopoly in 1624.
- 70. Arnold Plant, “The Economic Theory concerning Patents for Inventions,” Economica, February, 1934, p. 44.