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Journal of Economic Perspectives Symposium on Patents

In a previous post I cited The Overwhelming Empirical Case Against Patent and Copyright. Not only economists, but legal scholars are very skeptical of IP (Legal Scholars: Thumbs Down on Patent and Copyright). Nonetheless the basic IP system of patent and copyright retains is primacy and the patina of legitimacy. In the past most academic and scholarly symposia on the topic would host a gathering of court intellectual offering justifications of the IP system that more honest economists and legal scholars could not find a justification for. It was taken for granted that we need IP, that IP will always be with us, and despite the inability of its supporters to prove their case, the cries of the skeptics would remain unheeded. Thus, books and journals and academic symposia are riddled with the musings of quasi-statists and empiricists who recite the incantations needed to keep IP alive for another generation, while no one really believes it.

But the tide is turning. As I note in Mossoff: “Convincing the Intellectual Property Skeptic”, “free market” defenders of IP are increasingly on the ropes, and are starting to mount a rearguard defense of a crumbling, antiquated, statist ideology. They all know their days are numbered. And so we have more and more symposia on this topic, not just including the standard pro-IP defenders of the naked emperor, but compelled to give at least some platform to the skeptics.

Case in point is the recent issue of the prestigious Journal of Economic Perspectives, which includes a balanced symposium on patents. Yes, it includes a couple of rote pieces defending the status quo (or so it appears; I only glanced at these two), but it also includes two articles very skeptical of patents. First, there is an article by Boldrin and Levine (authors of Against Intellectual Monopoly), who write in “The Case against Patents“:

The case against patents can be summarized briefly: there is no empirical evidence that they serve to increase innovation and productivity …. This disconnect is at the root of what is called the “patent puzzle”: in spite of the enormous increase in the number of patents and in the strength of their legal protection, the US economy has seen neither a dramatic acceleration in the rate of technological progress nor a major increase in the levels of research and development expenditure.

… Our preferred policy solution is to abolish patents entirely to find other legislative instruments, less open to lobbying and rent seeking, to foster innovation when there is clear evidence that laissez-faire undersupplies it. However, if that policy change seems too large to swallow, we discuss in the conclusion a set of partial reforms that could be implemented as part of an incremental strategy of reducing the harm done by the patent system.

And Petra Moser notes in “Patents and Innovation: Evidence from Economic History“:

Historical evidence suggests that in countries with patent laws, the majority of innovations occur outside of the patent system. Countries without patent laws have produced as many innovations as countries with patent laws during some time periods, and their innovations have been of comparable quality.

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