Yet Another Study Shows That Patents Lead To Sub-Optimal Innovation
from the no-surprise-there dept
There are two key problems with this theory, that explain why the historical evidence can find no support of this happening in practice. The first is that people invent and innovate for all sorts of reasons -- very rarely having to do with "because I can get a patent." It may be "because this is something I need or something I want." Or it could be because the innovator recognizes that with or without a patent, providing that product in the marketplace is likely to be lucrative (and being first in the marketplace is even more lucrative). Or, it may just be that the innovators are driven to make the world a better place. Whether it's profit motive or altruism, there are many reasons that invention and innovation occur without the need for patents.
The second key problem is the very nature of innovation itself. As anyone who's been involved with serious innovation over a period of time can tell you, innovation is an ongoing process, rather than a one-and-done sort of thing. You take an idea, and you work on it, and then you see what people think, and then you innovate, and you try something different and you get more feedback and you innovate some more, and so on. It never ends. You're always continuing to innovate. As such, others are often doing similar innovations, and the ability to leapfrog each other in the marketplace is actually a fantastic driver of innovation. If someone else is doing something cool, it's of little use to just copy them. You want to make something even better. And then they want to leapfrog you as well. That drives serious rapid innovation. A patent, on the other hand, greatly limits this whole process. Because it assumes that innovation is a one-and-done process. Someone comes up with something new, and that's it. The market needs to live with it until the patent expires or someone comes up with something entirely different. That's massively stifling on the normal process of innovation.
A few months back, two professors, Andrew W. Torrance and Bill Tomlinson, published a paper on a simulation game they ran to test out some of these hypotheses. A bunch of folks submitted this back when it first came out, but I wanted to spend some time looking over the details before writing about it. Basically, Torrance and Tomlinson create a nice simulation system that really does a good job simulating the various models for innovation with patents or in a more collaborative world. And, what they found in the simulation they ran supports what has actually happened in the real world, according to the research we've discussed in the past:
These results indicate that current patent systems (that is, systems combining patent and open source protection for inventions) may generate significantly lower rates of innovation (p<0.05), productivity (p<0.001), and social utility (p<0.002) than does a commons system. This suggests that current patent systems may significantly deter, rather than spur, technological innovation compared to a commons system.Specifically, the results compared three separate models: one where everything gets patented, one where it's a hybrid model with both patents and a common, and one that was pure commons. The results are pretty striking. In the pure commons (no patents) world, they ended up with more innovation, significantly greater productivity and massively more social utility.