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The Economist Comes out for Patent Abolition—Again—Almost

The August 8–14 2015 issue of The Economist has a great couple of pieces basically calling for abolition—or at least radical reform—of the patent system. The first is the leader, “Time to fix patents“; the second is the longer piece, “A question of utility.” The leader notes that “in 19th-century Britain,” The Economist sided with free-traders in calling for the complete abolition of the patent system. As the longer article explains:

THE Great Exhibition, staged in London in 1851, was intended to show off the inventive genius of Victorian Britain. In doing so it sparked a hardfought debate on intellectual property. On one side were public figures horrified at the thought of inviting the whole world to see the nation’s best ideas, only to have most of it go straight home and copy them. They called for the patent system to be made cheaper and easier to navigate, and for the rights it conferred to be more forcefully upheld. These demands, though, were met with a backlash. Supported by economic liberals who had successfully fought for the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws a few years earlier, this side of the debate argued that free trade and competition were good for the economy; that patents were a restraint on both; and that therefore patents should be not reformed, but done away with.

The Economist, founded by opponents of the Corn Laws, was an enthusiastic promoter of this abolitionist movement. A leader in our July 26th issue that year thundered that the granting of patents “excites fraud, stimulates men to run after schemes that may enable them to levy a tax on the public, begets disputes and quarrels betwixt inventors, provokes endless lawsuits [and] bestows rewards on the wrong persons.” In perhaps our first reference to what are now called “patent trolls”, we fretted that “Comprehensive patents are taken out by some parties, for the purpose of stopping inventions, or appropriating the fruits of the inventions of others.”

Arguing that patents “rarely give security to really good inventions” and fail at their job of encouraging innovation by rewarding inventors for their efforts, we backed the abolitionists in a debate over patent reforms then in Parliament. Our knockout argument: most of the wonders of the modern age, from mule-spinning to railways, steamships to gas lamps, seemed to have emerged without the help of patents. If the Industrial Revolution didn’t need them, why have them at all?

Today’s Economist cannot quite, clearly, explicitly, unambiguously call for abolition, despite framing some of the arguments for it, and even though its arguments for mere partial reform are confused and fall flat. Anyone reading these pieces will at first be nodding, “Yes, yes, I see—maybe they are right—time to do away with these government monstrosities”, only to be confronted near the end with a confusing and unpersuasive series of blacksliding arguments to the effect that “despite all these problems with patents, of course we need them in a few areas  these two pieces indicate growing hostility to the idea of intellectual property and growing recognition that patents and IP are incompatible with the free market and property rights.

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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.