Jan 022011
Patents in force in 2000
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from the no-surprise-there dept: Techdirt

Over the years, we’ve pointed to tons of research, especially historical research, that shows that near total lack of evidence that patents have any causal relationship to increased innovation. Some of the research shows little effect in either direction, and some of the research actually suggests a serious disincentive to innovate in the face of patents. If you’re not all that familiar with innovation and patenting, this may come as a surprise. After all, the whole idea behind a patent is to create an incentive for someone to invent something that moves humankind forward (promoting the progress). The theory is that by providing some sort of gov’t granted exclusive monopoly, the inventors have more of a reason to go forward.

There are two key problems with this theory, that explain why the historical evidence can find no support of this happening in practice. The first is that people invent and innovate for all sorts of reasons — very rarely having to do with “because I can get a patent.” It may be “because this is something I need or something I want.” Or it could be because the innovator recognizes that with or without a patent, providing that product in the marketplace is likely to be lucrative (and being first in the marketplace is even more lucrative). Or, it may just be that the innovators are driven to make the world a better place. Whether it’s profit motive or altruism, there are many reasons that invention and innovation occur without the need for patents.

The second key problem is the very nature of innovation itself. As anyone who’s been involved with serious innovation over a period of time can tell you, innovation is an ongoing process, rather than a one-and-done sort of thing. You take an idea, and you work on it, and then you see what people think, and then you innovate, and you try something different and you get more feedback and you innovate some more, and so on. It never ends. You’re always continuing to innovate. As such, others are often doing similar innovations, and the ability to leapfrog each other in the marketplace is actually a fantastic driver of innovation. If someone else is doing something cool, it’s of little use to just copy them. You want to make something even better. And then they want to leapfrog you as well. That drives serious rapid innovation. A patent, on the other hand, greatly limits this whole process. Because it assumes that innovation is a one-and-done process. Someone comes up with something new, and that’s it. The market needs to live with it until the patent expires or someone comes up with something entirely different. That’s massively stifling on the normal process of innovation.

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