Bell Telephone Patent Was No Poster Child For The Patent System
from the learning-from-history dept
As part of a research project on the history of government regulation, I’m reading a 1975 book about the history of the telephone industry. One of the most interesting things I’ve been learning about is the central role of the patent system in the telephone’s early development. In 1877, Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent that effectively gave him a 17-year monopoly over the entire telephone industry. I found the story particularly interesting because it’s strikingly at odds with the standard policy argument for the patent system. It’s generally claimed that without patents, inventors wouldn’t be able to recoup the costs of their inventions. The story of the Bell patents undermines this argument in two ways. First, it’s pretty clear that someone else would have invented the telephone within a few years if Bell hadn’t done so. Indeed, inventor Elisha Gray famously submitted a preliminary application for his own telephone design a few hours after Bell. But I think an even more serious difficulty for the pro-patent argument is what happened after the Bell patents expired in 1894. Patent supporters assume that competition will rapidly drive the price of a new invention down to the point where an inventor is unable to recoup his investment. But in fact, despite an explosion of new competitors in the 1890s, the American Bell Company maintained its high rates, and its revenues continued to grow every year from 1894 to 1899. It seems that even in competitive markets, there’s plenty of room for innovators to turn a profit.
I suspect that part of what was going on was simply that the United States was a big country, even in the 19th century, and there was plenty of room in the market for a number of companies to grow simultaneously. Also, American Bell was demonstrating that innovation is a process, not a burst of innovation. American Bell stayed ahead of its competitors largely by continuing to improve their technology, including adding new long-distance routes and switching from noisy one-wire circuits to much higher-quality two-wire ones. Once it could no longer rely on its patent monopoly, they were forced to stay ahead of competitors by continuously improving their technology. Obviously, consumers are much better off when companies have to compete for their business, rather than simply resting on the strength of a patent monopoly. I’ve got more discussion of the Bell patent story, and some quotes from the book, at the Technology Liberation Front.