Does Innovation Require the Patent Office?

by Stephan Kinsella on May 10, 2013

From Jeff Tucker at Laissez Faire Today:

Does Innovation Require the Patent Office?

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 Two years ago, I spoke to a gentlemen who had started and sold four companies. He was currently working on a new project that sounded very promising (for all I know, he has already sold that one too). We had just heard a talk in which the speaker told people that the whole key to business success in our time is patent ownership. Without it, no business can really succeed.

So I asked this gentleman what he thought of the talk. His response was quick (I paraphrase here):

“I’ve never once bothered with patents. They are expensive and pointless. They produce no revenue on their own. They sell no product or service. And they harm development by hemming in a company on a preset track. I need to be able to customize offerings and change what we do day to day. Patents bias a company toward old solutions even when they don’t work anymore.”

That’s an interesting perspective. And it raises the question: How much do patents have to do with innovation in the real world?

As much as we hear about patents, we might suppose there is some sort of direct link between them and the innovations we enjoy in our lives. Someone invents something and shows the plan to a bureaucrat. The exclusive license is issued, and away we go.

Economic historians have usually assumed a direct link between patents and innovation, basing much of their chronicle of history on records at the Patent Office. Much of what we think we know — that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, that the Wright Brothers were first in flight, that Thomas Edison holds the record for inventions because he has the most patents — comes from these records.

But is it true? Most patent holders assume so. They cling to them as a source of life and defend them against all encroachment. Some businesses build up their war chests with patents as purely defensive measures. The more you own, the more you can intimidate your competitors to stay out of your territory.

So how important are patents in generating innovation? The answer is not much, according to four economists from the Technical University of Lisbon. They are circulating their research on a platform sponsored by the St. Louis Federal Reserve. They looked at the best innovations between 1977-2004, as listed by the R&D awards in the journal Research and Development. They matched 3,000 innovations against patent records to establish the relationship.

Their findings are remarkable: Nine in 10 of the innovations were never patented. They were just created and marketed, and changed the world. In other words, it’s the market, not the bureaucracy, that innovates. The authors grant that there might have been downstream versions of the same innovations that were patented. But that fact actually doesn’t change the implications of the study, namely that there is no relationship between the existence of the Patent Office and direction and pace of innovation.

As you dig through their citations, you find other nuggets of information. It turns out that other researchers have found the same thing in early parts of the 20th century and even all the way back to the middle of the 19th. The results keep coming up the same way: There are patents and there are innovations, but they have little or nothing to do with each other.

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