In an email someone mentioned to me a particular key invention from a few decades ago, which was responsible for a number of other high-tech innovations that we now enjoy, and asked me to "show us how any of that could have happened if there were no patents." My response is below.
Why is the burden on me to show how it could have happened without patents? The question is itself question-begging, as it assumes the patents played a causal role, which must be either explained away or for which a substitute incentive effect must be found.
I'd say that almost any invention that comes will come eventually--maybe even sooner, absent the patent system, absent the state (see Yet Another Study Finds Patents Do Not Encourage Innovation). In my experience, this view is almost universal among inventors and engineers. We would have had transistors by now without Shockley, Planck, and Schrödinger; we would have had light bulbs without Edison; and one-click purchasing on web sites without Jeff Bezos. Maybe a bit later, but eventually. And maybe even earlier--patents slow things down too, after all.
And we cannot forget that a huge factor in innovation is wealth. Wealth is needed to provide spare time and resources to engage in research and development. And wealth is no doubt hampered severely in a society that has a state, which any patent society must. Without a state there would be no patents, but a far richer world, and more innovation because of that factor alone.
Finally--so what if we wouldn't have had invention X, Y, Z, as early, or even ever, without a patent system? After all, a patent system undeniably has costs in terms of both rights and money. How can it be shown that having invention X is worth the violation of rights incurred as a result of the patent system necessary to generate X? Utilitarianism is a bankrupt doctrine, after all. And even if you approach it from a utilitarian, wealth-maximization angle: how can it be shown--who has shown?--that the cost of the patent system that generates X is less than the value of X?
[Mises cross-post; SK cross-post]
[Posted at 07/10/2009 08:37 PM by Stephan Kinsella on Innovation comments(7)]
When Gauss died, most of his work went unpublished as he never saw his discoveries being up to par with what he wished to distribute. Had he published his work, it would have saved the world 50 years of mathematical research. Since his work was found after the fact it can indeed be shown the same inventions were made without one prior to it.
[Comment at 07/11/2009 07:41 AM by Jeremy Lavergne]
In discussing both patents and copyright we seem to overlook the fact that people create for the simple self-fulfilling challenge/joy of creating. Creation can be either (or a mixture of both) an altruistic endeavor for the benefit of society or more selfish, such as making money. Clearly, if one wants to make money, patents and copyright offer some solace. But, patents and copyright do NOT
I fail to see the logic of patents begetting creativity as that would imply that before patents existed we would not have been able to create. Obviously we have created without patents.
[Comment at 07/12/2009 08:58 AM by Steve R.]
You are missing some details.
First, the primary purpose of patents was disclosure, not creativity. Thomas Jefferson, after some misgiving, thought that patents would benefit society by getting inventors to reveal their invention so that after a limited period of control by the inventors, their inventions would be available for all to practice and to use for further invention and innovation.
Second, you are correct, people will create with or without patents. However, people will dig ditches with or without being paid for doing so. People will landscape with or without being paid to do so. We can go on this line of thought for days. However, when you pay people (or give them the chance to be paid), they will generally do more of the thing they like to do than they otherwise would.
I have read a number of biographies of inventors and a few autobiographies. One thing that is a very common theme is that patent protection enabled them to keep doing what they do best, invent. Consider what would have happened to the world if Thomas Edison was only permitted to invent part time, and forced to work at Woolworth's to be able to eat. Would he have only provided 1/4 the inventions he did? Perhaps 1/10 of the inventions? Perhaps only two or three inventions?
Someone over on Techdirt claimed that eventually all inventions would eventually be invented, patents or otherwise. This person said that the inventions might be in 50 years, or 100 years, or even 1,000 years, but eventually all worthwhile inventions would be invented. I believe this statement. So the question is, were we better off inventing the MRI in the 1980's, or could we have waited another century or two? What about central air conditioning? What about insulin? List the 100 most important inventions of the 20th century and for those that were patented (and my guess is that better than 90% were patented), ask whether we would have been better off as a society if they had yet to be invented. Those things will eventually be invented, but patenting assuredly speeds up the process.
[Comment at 07/12/2009 09:48 AM by Anonymous]
You just don't get it do you? I patent to make a living, but invention is my passion.
When I invent each process is very different.
Sometimes its a basic set of inventions meant to open up a completely new area.
Sometimes its an idea(s) buried and protected by complex and hidden computer code, which is only covered by Copyright.
Sometimes its follow on inventions meant to strengthen or broaden a new area once its best uses are made manifest.
Sometimes its just to PUT SOMETHING IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN with only modest expectation of remuneration.
Except for the last type it never needs to be patented. Frequently I am very tempted by the opportunity to keep what is shown to the world in an area I can completely control by TRADE SECRET. But then I'm forced to be a manufacturer not an inventor- as if to be a writer one had to control the publication and the publisher of your book. So I prefer to patent sell the invention or start a company to exploit it protected by the patent law and corporate law and then go back to inventing.
You who do not appreciate great invention or even comprehend what such might mean will never understand how impoverished your world would be if inventors were to stop making their work public.
In the end of course big money will win out, your worst nightmares will be realized. My effort and that of other small inventors to get fair treatment from a USPTO increasingly sold out to big business (Obama just put a key IBM IP lawyers at th head of the USPTO) may well be ignored.
Since most important innovations and all great disruptive ideas come from one or at most four inventors it will be the economic health of the US which will suffer even more.
So enjoy the fruits of my invention (you do every day on your iphone, MAC and laptop) and ruminate about how good you would feel if you could freely use all the ideas in the world not just ones you steal from your grad students.
[Comment at 07/12/2009 03:34 PM by Vic Kley]
If you are against something critical to public good you have a moral obligation to explain how you would replace it or exactly why it is not in fact needed. Chinese invented gunpowder, but rifles were invented by others a 1000 years later. The Chinese were bright and good metal workers they just did not think it up, they did not invent it- Kinsellas statement that it would have been done eventually is the common refrain of those who cannot invent and cannot imagine a world without the inventions they take for granted.
[Comment at 07/12/2009 03:52 PM by Vic Kley]
Eh? "Since most important innovations and all great disruptive ideas come from one or at most four inventors it will be the economic health of the US which will suffer even more."
You should tell that to people like Vint Cerf, Linus Torvalds and many others like them who contribute to free software and open standards without demanding copyright or patent royalties.
[Comment at 07/12/2009 09:03 PM by Scott Dunn]
Vic Kley, so was it because of patents that the Chinese invented the gunpowder 1000 years sooner than rifles or was it the absence of patents that the Chinese didn't invent rifles sooner? I don't see how patents speed up innovation, I only see how they slow it down or sometimes even prevent it.
Anonymous, you seem to by implying that without patents it is impossible for inventors to make a living?
[Comment at 07/12/2009 11:56 PM by Samuel Hora]