There Is No Harmony In A Patent Thicket

from the just-thorns dept

This is the sixth post in a series of posts looking at the question of intellectual property rights in both China and India. We’ve got one more post to go.

Why Intellectual Property Is Insufficient For Economic Development In China And India The strong focus on intellectual property presented by advisers to China and India miss the ecosystem in which useful innovation takes place. This ecosystem includes, among other things, education, entrepreneurship and openness. For example, intellectual property can only add to growth when coupled with trade liberalization, something India significantly lacks (Gould 1996). However, because a larger market provides a larger incentive for commercial innovation, some researchers have found that with increased market size should come decreased intellectual property (Boldrin 2005). This finding, that for every 2% of economic growth, the duration of IP should be reduced by 0.5% would have significant implications in rapidly growing China and India, but it receives little to no attention amidst the drive for ever stronger intellectual property. Finally, even though intellectual property may stimulate cross-border licensing of technology, it is unlikely to bring a sudden inflow of foreign investment because other facts account for the variation in the behavior of MNCs in different countries (Fink 2005).
Watch out for the Patent Thicket

As China and India are exhorted to increase intellectual property protection and enforcement to higher standards – “harmonization” in the rhetoric of its proponents – they risk emulating the detrimental IP systems of the developed world. The United States, widely viewed as the most innovative nation in the world, has a patent system that  has, according to Jaffe, "become sand rather than lubricant in the wheels of American progress” (Jaffe 2004). Even more worrying, the trend in international intellectual property is actually speeding past the American level of protection, raising concerns that the incredibly strong IP in countries will diminish, rather than promote, innovative capabilities.

Patent thickets – "a dense web of overlapping intellectual property rights that a company must hack its way through in order to actually commercialize new technology" – and the "tragedy of the anticommons" – where "too much ownership… wrecks markets, stops innovations and costs lives" – are useful concepts for policy-makers in China and India to keep in mind as they are encouraged to increase their intellectual property. Instead of being incentives for innovation, 47% of firms are using patent portfolios in negotiations and 50% as defensive protection from lawsuits (Boldrin 2008). If China and India grant patents too broadly, they risk overshooting privatization, likely stunting the domestic growth of complex technologies and innovations whose production will be covered by dozens of competing patent claims (Jaffe 2004). This will only be exacerbated by bad standards that do not restrict exclusive rights to truly novel, useful and non-obvious inventions (Boyle 2008).

Are China and India Overshooting Optimal Intellectual Property?

There is already evidence that the two emerging superpowers are making these errors. East Asian countries are patenting at a per capita rate of 4 times the developed world, leading to quick patent quantity convergence (Brahmbhatt 2007). China, whose patent office led the world with 800,000 applications in 2008, is now also home to the most patent lawsuits per year (“Battle of Ideas”). While, prima facie, the enormous absolute populations of China and India will likely make their patenting activity among the highest, given the relatively small sectors engaged in truly innovative work, these figures are worrying. In fact, the same motivations that have been fingered as the causes of the American patent system’s woes – government downsizing and competitiveness – are currently present in China and India, increasing the likelihood that they follow America’s folly (Jaffe 2004).

Another American policy of uncertain quality that is being emulated in China and India is university commercialization. The Bayh-Dole Act, passed by Congress in 1980, encouraged universities to commercialize their innovations through patents, but its effectiveness is highly suspect. Bayh-Dole changed “academic norms regarding open, swift and disinterested scientific exchange” (So 2008). In India, this is already a concern with 71% of surveyed executives feeling “that lack of collaboration between industry and research institutes was the main hurdle to innovation in India” (Dutz 2007). The facilitators of that exchange, Technology Transfer Offices, have “become gatekeepers that in many cases constrain the flow of inventions and frustrate faculty, entrepreneurs, and industry” (So 2008). Yet, China and India are both encouraging university patents (Graff 2007).

Flying Right Past the USA

Unfortunately, simply recreating the flawed American system is unlikely. The world’s largest economic force, the USA, is actively using its trading power to increase international IP standards beyond the current TRIPs-mandated level. Through bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) and the multilateral Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, currently being negotiated in secret, the United States is promulgating even more expansive intellectual property policies. The FTAs have strengthened intellectual property rights beyond the high standard already set by TRIPs in dozens of countries. These measures include extending copyright for an additional 20 years, preventing parallel importation of patented pharmaceutical products, limiting compulsory licensing ability, limiting copyright exceptions and limitations through the illegalization of technological circumvention measures, and explicitly extending patents to biological innovations (Fink 2005 PDF). Countries accept these provisions in return for lower tariffs and better quota allotments, but while those are temporary, the expansive intellectual property policies are not.

In addition to all the previously explained reasons why this is likely detrimental to the developing nations who agree, it is useful to note that these policies promoted by the USTR are deeply hypocritical, especially when it comes to copyright. The United States copyright laws give considerable breadth to consumers through the fair use provision. This limitation on exclusive rights has been estimated to contribute $4.5 trillion per year to the US economy (Rogers 2007 PDF). Consumer International, a nonprofit, ranks the United States as among the best copyright policies in regards to consumer protection; notably, it is joined by China and India, condemned by the USTR and copyright industries as too permissive (“IP Watch List” 2009).

Speaking of intellectual property as unidirectional makes little sense when one recognizes that the benefits are neither clear-cut nor absolute. Additional costs of further strengthened IP in China and India will be higher administrative costs, less imitation, and a decrease in the incremental innovation that provides real growth (Reichman 1997).

Other posts in this series:

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Comments on “There Is No Harmony In A Patent Thicket”

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Tristin (profile) says:

Well done. I’d like to see the whining trolls like the one above try to use their intellect long enough to actually read your paper and attempt a response. It is well-referenced and logically solid. It is nice to see someone actually use research in this debate rather than sentiment and propaganda.

It is infuriating that haters will degenerate into sarcastic 8-year-old brats every time you put forth a reasonable argument. I get the feeling they have no logical basis for their biases; it would explain why they flee from logic like cockroaches from light. That’s not fair though; even cockroaches serve a useful purpose to SOME people on the planet.

staff1 (profile) says:

stop the shilling!!!

“The United States, widely viewed as the most innovative nation in the world, has a patent system that has, according to Jaffe, “become sand rather than lubricant in the wheels of American progress” (Jaffe 2004).”

Jaffe and his pals are hired hands of those who would scrap the US patent system. They are trying to kill it, not fix it.

Patent reform is a fraud on America…
Please see for a different/opposing view on patent reform.

Dale B. Halling (profile) says:

Weak IP?

Staff1 agreed.

The patent thicket argument is complete non-sense, with absolutely no evidence. The patent thicket proponents point to the software industry and the biotech industry, but the emprical evidence all supports the conclusion that patents have spurred growth in this industries. For more information see

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Weak IP?

Heh. Citing yourself, huh?

There’s tremendous evidence of patent thickets harming the pace of innovation. A ton of empirical, non-biased research showing what a mess patent thickets have caused.

Besides, anyone who calls those who want LESS gov’t monopolies a “socialist” has no credibility to speak of.

You make your living thanks to the gov’t handing out monopolies, so I can understand your bias and inability to think clearly on the issue. But every *independent* study has shown what a mess the patent system is.

wvhillbilly (profile) says:

Patent meltdown, IP criminals

I have been saying for a long time now I believe the end result of all these ever increasing “intellectual property” protections is going to be the economy melting down in a sea of litigation as patent holders push for ever stronger protections and attempt to enforce them on anyone having anything remotely resembling the claims of their patents.

On the copyright side it seems the record companies are determined to make criminals of all otherwise law abiding citizens who don’t bow down to their decreed rules of their outmoded, outdated business models.

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