Maybe we should like patents

For a long time I was very sceptical of the benefits of patents. For one thing, they seemed to interfere with other types of property—Apple's patents over certain shapes for phones mean Google cannot use its factories, materials, etc. in certain ways. For another, I coincidentally had come across work suggesting their benefits are overstated, including Against Intellectual Monopoly (appropriately available in full online) by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine.

But three recent papers exploiting a novel source of data have made me reconsider, since they throw cold water on one of the popular alternatives to patents: innovation prizes. All three are by B. Zorina Khan, an economics Professor at Bowdoin College and fellow at Stanford University's august Hoover Institution.

The first looks at annual industrial fairs in 19th century Massachusetts and finds that (relative to patents awarded over the same period) prizes were mainly used for advertising purposes, were awarded unsystematically and unpredictably, and did not vary in line with how useful or popular an invention or innovation ended up being. What's more, prizewinners were typically from a more privileged class than patentees. This all implies that patents are more market driven and better at incentivising creative innovation, Khan says.

The second looks at similar data (American Institute of New York annual fairs) from a different angle. One argument against patents is that they limit what others can do on top of a given innovation, or how much they can be inspired by a particular breakthrough, because they might have to license the patent or risk infringing it. One argument in the other direction is that patents allow people to bring their information out into the open because others will not use it to jump ahead, so it encourages openness. What's more, all of their info surrounding the innovation is written down and easy to find.

Khan finds that the second effect predominates; patents encourage 'spillover' innovation more than prizes:

In keeping with the contract theory of patents, the procedure identifies high and statistically significant spatial autocorrelation in the sample of inventions that were patented, indicating the prevalence of geographical spillovers. By contrast, prize innovations were much less likely to be spatially dependent. The second part of the paper investigates whether unpatented innovations in a county were affected by patenting in contiguous or adjacent counties, and the analysis indicates that such spatial effects were large and significant. These results are consistent with the argument that patents enhance the diffusion of information for both patented and unpatented innovations, whereas prizes are less effective in generating external benefits from knowledge spillovers. I hypothesize that the difference partly owes to the design of patent institutions, which explicitly incorporate mechanisms for systematic recording, access, and dispersion of technical information.

Finally, her 2013 paper “Trolls and Other Patent Inventions: Economic History and the Patent Controversy in the Twenty-First Century” (the argument is given in less length in a Cato Unbound essay) argues that if you take a long historical view, current patent controversies around non-practising entities, patent thickets, litigation and so on are not new. She says they are part of a well-functioning and successful intellectual property system.

So maybe we should like patents. After all, we support regular property rights because the institution has been proven to lead to a wealthy, successful society, even if messed with substantially. If patents are the best tool we have for generating innovation—a key ingredient of continued social progress—then we should support them too.