Do patent-owners 'hold up' further innovation?


One of the standard arguments of the anti-patent crowd is that patents hinder follow-on innovation by making it risky or costly to build on other people's breakthroughs. There is some evidence for this (see this post from my colleague Charlotte).

However, a new paper challenges this general thesis by looking at whether the outcomes it predicts happen in the real world. If it is true that owners of standard-essential patents (SEPs)—those ones that set up a whole standard used across the marketplace and essential for a large number of follow-on innovators—charge over-the-odds fees and prevent follow-on innovation, then it must also be true that:

  1. Industries where SEPs predominate are ones with relatively stagnant (quality-adjusted) prices, because new entrant innovators have less chance to bid them down through competition
  2. Court decisions that reduce the power of SEP holders will lead to more innovation in those sectors

The paper, "An Empirical Examination of Patent Hold-Up" (pdf) finds neither of these to be true:

A large literature asserts that standard essential patents (SEPs) allow their owners to “hold up” innovation by charging fees that exceed their incremental contribution to a final product.

We evaluate two central, interrelated predictions of this SEP hold-up hypothesis: (1) SEP-reliant industries should experience more stagnant quality-adjusted prices than similar non-SEP-reliant industries; and (2) court decisions that reduce the excessive power of SEP holders should accelerate innovation in SEP-reliant industries.

We find no empirical support for either prediction. Indeed, SEP-reliant industries have the fastest quality-adjusted price declines in the U.S. economy.

The principle is nicely illustrated in a few charts.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 15.53.51

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 15.54.01

At one point there was more or less of a consensus among libertarians that intellectual property was a good kind of property rights. Nowadays you are more likely to see a proto-consensus against copyright at the very least and often patents as well. I think that emerging evidence means we should keep our minds open.