Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The case against patents

This is the title of a new paper by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine which appears in the latest issue (Vol. 27, Issue 1 Winter 2013) of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Boldrin and Levine argue.
The case against patents can be summarized briefly: there is no empirical evidence that they serve to increase innovation and productivity, unless productivity is identified with the number of patents awarded—which, as evidence shows, has no correlation with measured productivity. Both theory and evidence suggest that while patents can have a partial equilibrium effect of improving incentives to invent, the general equilibrium effect on innovation can be negative. A properly designed patent system might serve to increase innovation at a certain time and place. Unfortunately, the political economy of government-operated patent systems indicates that such systems are susceptible to pressures that cause the ill effects of patents to grow over time. Our preferred policy solution is to abolish patents entirely and to find other legislative instruments, less open to lobbying and rent seeking, to foster innovation when there is clear evidence that laissez-faire undersupplies it. However, if that policy change seems too large to swallow, we discuss in the conclusion a set of partial reforms that could be implemented.
I am however reminded of a comment by Jean Tirole,
Consider the patent system. It has long been recognized that patents are an inefficient method for providing incentives for innovation since they confer monopoly power on their holders. Information being a public good, it would be ex post socially optimal to award a prize to the innovator and to disseminate the innovation at a low fee. Yet the patent system has proved to be an unexpectedly robust institution. That no one has come up with a superior alternative is presumably due to the fact that, first, it is difficult to describe in advance the parameters that determine the social value of an innovation and therefore the prize to be paid to the inventor, and, second, that we do not trust a system in which a judge or arbitrator would determine ex post the social value of the innovation (perhaps because we are worried that the judge might be incompetent or would have low incentives to become informed, or else would collude with the inventor to overstate the value of the innovation or with the government to understate it). A patent system has the definite advantage of not relying on such ex ante or ex post descriptions (although the definition of the breadth of a patent does). (Jean Tirole, "Incomplete Contracts: Where Do We Stand?" Econometrica, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Jul., 1999), pp. 741-781.)
So the real question is can you replace the current system with something that works better? Given how long the patent system has been around that maybe more difficult than its sounds.


Mark Hubbard said...

Anarchists and New Agers miss the fact that patents are not about innovation, but property rights.

Gareth said...

What are your thoughts on Michael Kremer's proposal for an auction based patent system where the government randomly buys a percentage of the patents at the winning bid and puts the innovation into the public domain?
(I first heard about this through Steve Landsburg -