Unproductive patents

Patents are a state-granted property rights, designed to promote innovation and the transfer of knowledge. They grant the holder a time-limited, exclusive right to make, use and sell the patented work, in exchange for the public disclosure of the invention. This, so the theory goes, allows creators to utilise and commercially exploit their invention, whilst disclosing its technical details allows for the effective public dissemination of knowledge.

However, complaints that the patent system is broken and fails to deliver are common.

Patent Assertion Entities (or ‘Patent Trolls’) buy up patents simply to threaten accused infringers with (often dubious) lawsuits, and are estimated to cost American consumers alone $29bn annually. Another scourge are the ‘patent thickets’ made up of overlapping intellectual property rights which companies must ‘hack’ through in order to commercialize new technology. These have been found to impede competition and create barriers to entry, particularly in technological sectors.

Even thickets and trolls aside, using the patent system can carry high transaction costs and legal risks. Litan and Singer argue that this prevents many small and medium businesses from utilizing the system, with over 95% of current US patents unlicensed and failing to be put to productive use. This represents a huge amount of potentially useful ‘dead’ capital, which is effectively locked up until a patent’s expiry.

There are plenty of ways we can tinker with the patent system to make it more robust and less expensive. However, they all assume that patents do actually foster innovation, and are societally beneficial tool.

A number argue that even on a theoretical level this is false; the control rights a patent grant actually hamper innovation instead of promoting it. Patents create an artificial monopoly, which results, as with other monopolies, in higher prices, the misallocation of resources, and welfare loss. Economists Boldrin and Levine advocate the abolition of patents entirely on grounds the that there is no empirical evidence that they increase innovation and productivity, and in fact have negative effects on innovation and growth.

A new paper by Laboratoire d’Economie Appliquee de Grenoble, authored by Brueggemann, Crosetto, Meub and Bizer backs this claim, by offering experimental evidence that patents harm follow-on innovation.

Test subjects were given a Scrabble-like word creation task. Players could either make three-letter words from tiles they had purchased, or extend existing words one letter at the time. Those who extended a word were rewarded with the full ‘value’ of that word, creating a higher payoff to sequential innovation. In ‘no-IP’ (Intellectual Property) game groups, words created were available to all at no cost. In the IP game groups, players could charge others a license fee for access to their words.

The results are striking:

We find intellectual property to have an adverse effect on welfare as innovations become less frequent and less sophisticated…Introducing intellectual property results in more basic innovations and subjects fail to exploit the most valuable sequential innovation paths. Subjects act more self-reliant and non-optimally in order to avoid paying license fees. Our results suggest that granting intellectual property rights hinders innovations, especially for sectors characterized by a strong sequentiality in innovation processes.

In fact, the presence of a license fee within the game reduced total welfare by 20-30%, as a result of less sophisticated innovation. Players in these games used shorter, less valuable words, and in order to avoid paying license fees would miss innovation opportunities which were seized upon in no-IP games.

The authors suggest that patents could be harmful in all highly sequential industries. These range from bioengineering to software, where the use of patents has been strongly criticized, through to pharmaceuticals, where the use of patents is much more widely accepted. If patents really do restrict follow-on innovation even remotely near as much as suggested, the implications could be huge.

Of course, the study is only experimental and far less complex than real life, but it’s a useful contribution to the claim that patents do more to hinder than to help.

You should be very careful what you wish for

An interesting little observation from Ed Lazear:

There are basically two ways that the average economywide wage can fall. There might be a shift in employment away from high-paying to lower-paying industries; in other words, the economy is producing more “bad jobs.” The other way is that the overall composition of work might be the same, but wages for the typical job in most sectors have fallen.

Normally, economywide wage changes reflect what happens to the wage of the typical job. But between 2010 and 2014 there were also significant declines in the proportion of the workforce employed in two high-paying industries. Those declines contributed to overall wage declines—and they may have been caused by policy mistakes.

The share of the private workforce employed in the BLS-defined industries “financial activities” and “hospitals” decreased by about 5% between 2010 and 2014. Jobs in these industries pay 29% and 24%, respectively, above the economy mean. Because a smaller share of labor is working those high-wage industries, the typical job in the economy is now lower-paying than in 2010.

What has been happening here in the UK?

Well, our highest paying industry by a long way is wholesale finance, The City. And for several years that industry was shrinking. And average wages were declining. The City is now expanding again and average wages are rising. It would not do to insist that all of both the rise and fall depends upon the hiring practices of The City. But certainly some of it does.

Which leaves us in a state of some amusement. For of course it is those who have been whingeing most about the domination of the financial markets who have been complaining loudest about the fall in wages. Be careful what you wish for for you might well get it.

Tough on the causes of crime

Let’s be very reductionist and say that the prevalence of crime is affected by people’s biology, their upbringings, social environment and finally the crime and punishment system. In many ways the hardest things to change are their biology, so let’s just ignore these for the time being (although see 1 2).

Then what we have are upbringings/society and the crime and punishment system. Being very broad brushed we could say that before 1800 people put little faith in the former and lots in the latter. Nowadays people tend to be split between whether they place their faith in being tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime (can’t resist dropping this link here).

I favour both approaches, but outside of the fact that being just selected into a better school makes you a bit less likely to commit crimes, most social interventions we know don’t seem to have much effect. It might be a dead end. Start with the fact that 65% of UK boys with a father in prison will go on to offend. That’s easy to understand on the social-upbringing account: these people probably lack nurturing environments, live in bad neighbourhoods and so on.

The problem is that these just-so explanations don’t seem to fit the data.

  • Parenting: here’s a 2015 US paper showing “very little evidence of parental socialization effects on criminal behavior before controlling for genetic confounding and no evidence of parental socialization effects on criminal involvement after controlling for genetic confounding”.
  • Family income: here’s a 2014 Swedish paper showing “here were no associations between childhood family income and subsequent violent criminality and substance misuse once we had adjusted for unobserved familial risk factors”.
  • Bad neighbourhood: here’s a 2013 Swedish paper finding “the adverse effect of neighbourhood deprivation on adolescent violent criminality and substance misuse in Sweden was not consistent with a causal inference. Instead, our findings highlight the need to control for familial confounding in multilevel studies of criminality and substance misuse”. (In fact, this weird 2015 US paper found that low-income boys surrounded by affluent neighbours committed more crimes).

I realise there are other studies saying different things—I don’t want to sci-jack or be the Man of One Study—but many of these use caveman methodologies that don’t even attempt to account for the potential that some people are born different to others (e.g. some have more testosterone). And I think we can be cautiously confident in these findings because they fit with other things we know.

So we’re left with enforcement. Can that make a difference? Today black Americans commit many more crimes per capita than whites, despite committing fewer than them in the late 19th Century. It’s possible that the results above are only true for a narrow range of environments, and thus that social-familial affects are driving this.

But in any case do we really think that blacks in today’s USA live in worse environments than the blacks of the post-bellum USA? If environments are improving and people are pretty much the same genetically, then the criminal justice system may be the big changing factor.

I think the criminal justice system looks like the area where research could most plausibly lead to improved outcomes. Consider the imposition and enforcement of restrictive drug laws, which coincided with the crime wave, and which may increase violent crime (e.g. by inducting people into the criminal life, or by providing a lucrative trade to fight over).

Some way of changing improper or inadequate enforcement—e.g. liberalising drug laws—may be a can opener to assume but it’s nothing like the assuming the can opener of changing genetics or magic social interventions that actually work.

Of all the idiot suggestions

Of the idiot policies that politicians have tried to bake over the years this one rather takes the cake:

Scottish Labour MP Thomas Docherty is calling for a national debate on whether the sale of Adolf Hitler’s “repulsive” manifesto Mein Kampf should be prohibited in the UK.

Docherty has written to culture secretary Sajid Javid about the text, pointing out that it is currently “rated as an Amazon bestseller” and asking the cabinet member to consider leading a debate on the issue. An edition of Mein Kampf is currently in fifth place on Amazon’s “history of Germany” chart, in fourth place in its “history references” chart, and in 665th place overall.

“Of course Amazon – and indeed any other bookseller – is doing nothing wrong in selling the book. However, I think that there is a compelling case for a national debate on whether there should be limits on the freedom of expression,” writes Docherty to Javid.

Excellent, let us have that debate.

The answer is no.

On the simple grounds that freedom of speech really does mean what it says. People, even dead people, are free to spout their opinions however absurd, racist, hateful, jejeune or potentially damaging they may be. They may not libel and they may not incite to violence but within those constraints freedom really does mean freedom.

“This is not a debate around political books or manifestos or books which cause offence … What Mein Kampf and books like it do is specifically set out to incite hatred. It is literally the manifesto for Nazism.”

And that is why this is so important for this specific book. Yes, Hitler really did write down what he was going to do and when he gained power he went and did it. Which is why this specific book must remain available. So that we all remember that people often do have their little plans and it’s wise to make sure that certain people don’t get to enact them. As with that other little book that contributed so much to the tragedies of the 20 th century. Sometimes those who talk about the elimination of the bourgeoisie as a class really do mean it. Better to be warned and avoid, no?

One way to narrow the North-South divide

We all know there’s a North-South divide, but from a policymakers perspective it’s not clear what – if anything – we should be doing about it.

To a significant degree, the relative economic success of London and the South East is due to factors beyond the powers of politicians to rebalance (without simply dragging the country’s capital down). The decline of manufacturing, the rise of London and Cambridge as tech hubs, and the cultural pull of the metropolis cannot be overturned – no matter how much money the government throws at it.

But even though we can’t turn the country upside-down, given that most of us would prefer wealth and opportunity to be a little more evenly distributed, we should try to identify instances where we are prejudicing the South at the expense of the North. Here, one thing stands out above all others: the decision to postpone the revaluation of business rates.

As Simon Danczuk MP wrote a few years ago in the Guardian: “The problem is in my constituency – and no doubt many others – some commercial property values have fallen by up to 40 per cent since 2008.” For Danczuk’s Rochdale constituency, the FT reported that “a study by Liverpool university showed that if business rates were set using up-to-date property values, shops in Rochdale would experience a 65 per cent fall in rates bills.” In contrast, London shops would see a 52 per cent increase.

These costs weigh heavily on the North. Of the top 10 town centres with the greatest percentage of empty shops, seven are in the North East or North West. The Daily Mail reported last year that the North West is suffering from 16.9 per cent empty shop space, versus London’s 7.9 per cent. In Hartlepool, County Durham, 27.3 per cent of stores in the town are up for rent.

Demanding regular revaluations shouldn’t be confused with a call to cut business rates. As has been argued forcefully on this blog, business rates are about the least worst form of taxation: “Repeated taxes on property, that is business rates, have the lowest deadweight costs of any form of tax. The only one that could be better is a proper land value tax.” Nevertheless, landlords and the entrepreneurs that want to use the abandoned spaces deserve rates that reflect the value of the land – the first step of a Northern regeneration should be a revaluation.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.