Uncertain IP leads to less innovation

We’ve been debating patents on the blog recently.

Charlotte wrote about a really cool experiment that appeared to show that IP limits follow-on innovation.

I previously wrote that the follow-on benefits of innovation were on net positive, because the effect of bringing what would otherwise be business secrets into the open outweighs the cost of firms not being able to build on other firms innovations for free.

A newly published paper takes on another angle: collaboration. Entitled “R&D Collaboration with Uncertain Intellectual Property Rights” (full pdf of 2011 version) and by authors Dirk Czarnitzki, Katrin Hussinger, and Cédric Schneider it argues that firms shy away from working with other businesses when their intellectual property rights are less clear.

Patent pendencies create uncertainty in research and development (R&D) collaboration, which can result in a threat of expropriation of unprotected knowledge, reduced bargaining power and enhanced search costs. We show that—depending of the type of collaboration partner and the size of the company—uncertain intellectual property rights (IPRs) lead to reduced collaboration between firms and can, hence, hinder knowledge production.

Among firms with patent applications the average probability to collaborate with a competitor amounts to 13%. The probability of collaborating with a competitor decreases by 3% points for these firms if the share of pending patents in the patent application stock increases by one standard deviation at the mean. Thus, the average probability of collaborating with firms in the same industry is reduced by about 23% (=3/13), which is a sizeable impact.

Take that, Charlotte!

Piracy deal ahoy!

After years of impasse, UK Internet Service Providers and the copyright holders of the entertainment world look set to sign off an agreement on internet piracy.

According to the Beeb  a ‘voluntary copyright alert programme’ is to be agreed. Under this, ISPs will identify the IP addresses of alleged copyright offenders and send them ‘educational’ letters on copyright violation and legal alternatives to piracy. Whilst a similar ‘six strikes’ scheme in America sees ISPs able to impose sanctions (such as slowed internet speeds) on persistent offenders, the UK scheme does not. The amount of letters that ISPs can send is capped, and no individual will receive more than 4 letters. Following these, no further action will be taken.

This voluntary agreement breaks a deadlock between content giants, the government and ISPs caused by the Digital Economy Act (DEA). Rushed through in the parliamentary wash-up of 2010, the DEA’s copyright provisions instruct ISPs to keep a database of persistent downloaders, and to restrict then finally suspend internet access to those who ignore written warnings.

These provisions are deeply problematic. They force ISPs to police their own customers, burden the companies with compliance costs and ask them to protect another’s intellectual property. Punishing alleged copyright infringers without judicial involvement also undermines the rule of law. Criticized by many politicians, civil liberties groups and the ISPs themselves, none of the Act has been actually implemented.

On the face of it, it’s good that the new agreement is such a watered-down version of earlier proposals. It’s certainly a far cry from what the content industries really want: effective barriers to piracy and access to a list of infringers to hit with ‘compensatory’ legal action. Advocates of internet freedom should be pleased. That said, the agreement doesn’t change the power of copyright holders- they can still get infringing content removed and websites blocked under existing legislation.

Furthermore, skeptics might think that the entertainment industry’s acceptance of the new scheme is just them playing the long game. The programme is meant to run for 3 years but be regularly reviewed. Rights holders have warned that should the scheme prove ineffective they will push for the “rapid implementation” of measures in the DEA.

If the objective is to deter piracy it’s obvious that the scheme will be next to useless: sending ‘educational’ letters will do little to change the behavior of serial downloaders. What it does do, however, is let the entertainment industry claim that a soft approach doesn’t work, and gets ISPs creating a database of copyright infringers that rights holders might win access to in the future. Playing ball now gives the copyright giants credibility to push for more extreme measures later on.

This might seem cynical, but the established entertainment bodies are reluctant to let go of their increasingly outdated business models. Returning to the DEA also gets governments back in the picture, whom copyright bodies often have great success in lobbying. From the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’ of 1998 to the recent EU extension of the copyright in sound recordings, entertainment groups have a knack of preventing their goods from falling into the public domain, and ensuring that governments favor their industry’s profits over actual economic sense.

Understandably, media groups want people to stop illegally sharing their stuff. But instead of lobbying for legislation and slapping fines around the most effective deterrent is to understand consumer’s preferences and offer them valuable alternatives to piracy. Whilst movie bodies get angry at Google for linking to copyrighted material without really tackling their problem themselves, Spotify’s quite probably done more to combat music piracy than blocking The Pirate Bay ever has. However, instead of evolving the copyright industry seems to go out of its way to antagonize consumers, rent-seeking and objecting to even the most eminently sensible of copyright reforms.

Given the entertainment industry’s determination to protect their intellectual property, it’s unlikely that efforts to tackle piracy will end with a voluntary alert system. Whilst innovating companies will continue to find new ways of sharing and monetizing content, for the time being the copyright-holding giants of the entertainment world will remain preoccupied with the wrong prescriptions for piracy.

An alternative ‘Agenda for Hope’

Owen Jones has written a nine-point ‘Agenda for Hope’ that he argues would create a fairer society. Well, maybe. I’m not convinced by many of them. Then again, it would be quite surprising if I was.

But it got me thinking about what my nine-point agenda would be — not quite my ‘perfect world’ policies, but some fairly bold steps that I could just about imagine happening in the next couple of decades. Unlike Owen’s policies, few of these are likely to win much public support. On the other hand, most of the political elite would think these are just as wacky as Owen’s too.

Nine policies to make people richer and freer (and hopefully happier):

1) The removal of political barriers to who can work and reside in the UK. Removing all barriers to trade would increase global GDP by between 0.3% and 4.1%. Completely removing barriers to migration, though, could increase global GDP by between 67% and 147.3%. Those GDP benefits would mostly accrue to the poorest people in the world. We can’t remove these barriers everywhere but we can show the rest of the world how it’s done. Any step towards this would be good – I suggest we start by dropping the net migration cap and allowing any accredited educational institution to award an unlimited number of student visas.

2) A strict rule for the Bank of England to target nominal GDP instead of inflation, replacing the discretion of the Monetary Policy Committee. Even more harmful than the primary bust in recessions is what Hayek called the ‘secondary deflation’ that comes about as people, fearing a drop in their future nominal earnings, hold on to more of their money. That reduces the total level of nominal spending in the economy which, since prices and wages are sticky in the short run, leads to unemployment and a fall in economic output. NGDP targeting prevents those ‘secondary deflations’ and would make economic busts much less common and harmful. In the long run, we should scrap the central bank altogether and replace it with competition in currencies (see point 9, below).

3) Significant planning reform that abolished the Town and Country Planning Act (which includes the legislation ‘protecting’ the Green Belt from most development) and decentralised planning decisions to individuals through tradable development rights (TDRs). This would give locals an incentive to allow new developments because they would be compensated by the developers directly, allowing for a reasonably efficient price system to emerge and making new development much, much easier. The extra economic activity from the new home building alone would probably add a couple of points to GDP growth.

4) Legalisation of most recreational drugs and the medicalisation of the most harmful ones. I think Transform’s outline is pretty good: let cannabis be sold like alcohol and tobacco to adults by licensed commercial retailers; MDMA, cocaine and amphetamines sold by pharmacies in limited quantities; and extremely dangerous drugs like heroin sold with prescriptions for use in supervised consumption areas. The sooner this happens, the sooner producers will be answerable to the law and deaths from ‘bad batches’ of drugs like ecstasy will be a thing of the past. Better yet, this would bring an end to drug wars like Mexico’s, which has killed around 100,000 people in the past ten years.

5) Reform of the welfare system along the lines of a Negative Income Tax or Basic Income Guarantee. As it is, the welfare system disincentivises work and creates dependency without doing much for the working poor. A Negative Income Tax would only look at people’s incomes (not whether they were in work or not in work), reducing perverse incentives and topping up the wages of the poorest earners. This would strengthen the bargaining position of low-skilled workers and would remove much of the risks to workers associated with employment deregulation. Of course, the first thing we should do is raise the personal allowance and National Insurance threshold to the minimum wage rate to give poor workers a de facto ‘Living Wage’.

6) A Singaporean-style healthcare system to replace the NHS. In Singapore, people have both a health savings account and optional catastrophic health insurance. They pay a portion of their earnings into the savings account (poor people receive money from the state for this), which pays for day-to-day trips to the doctor, prescriptions, and so on. The government co-pays for many expenses but the personal cost disincentivises frivolous visits to the doctor. For very expensive treatments, optional catastrophic health insurance kicks in. This is far from being a pure free market system but it is miles better (cheaper and with better health outcomes) than the NHS. (By the way, if you really like the NHS we could still call this an ‘NHS’ and still get the superior system.)

7) A school voucher system and significant reform of the state education and free schools sectors. This would include the abolition of catchement areas and proximity-based admission, simplification of the free schools application process, and expansion of the free schools programme to allow profit making firms to operate free schools. These reforms, outlined in more detail in two ASI reports, would increase the number of places available to children and increase competition among schools to drive up standards.

8) Intellectual property reform. As both Alex Tabarrok and Matt Ridley have pointed out, our IP (patent and copyright) law is too restrictive and seems to be stifling new innovation. Firms use patents as barriers to entry, suing new rivals whose products are too similar to their own. In industries where development costs are high but imitation costs are low, like pharmaceuticals, patents may be necessary to incentivise innovation, but in industries like software development where development can be cheaper than imitation, patents can be a terrible drag on progress. Tabarrok recommends that we try to tailor patent length in accordance with these differences; as a sceptic about our ability to know, well, anything, I’d prefer to leave it to private contracts and common law courts to discover.

9) Last but not least, the removal of the thicket of financial regulation and the promise of bailouts for insolvent banks. Known as ‘free banking’, this system of laissez-faire finance has an extremely strong record of stability – though bank panics still occurred in free banking systems, they were much less severe and rarely systemic. Only once the government started to intervene in the financial system to provide complete stability did things really begin to go wrong: deposit insurance, branch-banking restrictions, and other prudent-seeming regulations led to extremely bad unforeseen consequences. The financial crisis of 2008 probably owes more to asset requirements like the Basel accords, which heavily incentivised banks to hold ‘safe’ mortgage debt over ‘risky’ business debt, than anything else. Incidentally, the idea that having a large number of local banks is somehow better than having a few large banks is totally wrong: during the Great Depression, 9,000 of America’s small, local banks failed; at the same time not one of Canada’s large banks failed. The small banks were more vulnerable because, unlike the big banks, they were undiversified.

Now, if only there was a think tank to try and make these dreams a reality.