A bunch of folks have been submitting the story about author William Rosen appearing on The Daily Show
hyping his new book about the steam engine, where he claims that the industrial revolution happened because of the ability to "own ideas."
Admittedly, it's Jon Stewart who tries to summarize/paraphrase Rosen's thesis by saying:
Jon Stewart: You say that the big difference there was the 'democritization of inventing.' This idea that, once people owned the idea of inventing... and I guess this happened in Britain... once the idea that ideas could be yours, and you would own them, that's what opened the floodgates.
William Rosen: Exactly. Once you actually empower people to get wealthy and famous as inventors, the floodgates are open. And an Oklahoma landrush starts to begin, where everyone's chasing not land, not 40 acres, but the next new invention. And the steam engine comes along right about that time.
Nice theory. Too bad the actual research has long debunked it. The mistake that Rosen makes here is a simple one that trips up plenty of people: it's confusing correlation with causation. The problem is that when people have looked at the issue in more detail, they've actually discovered that the correlation doesn't work the way that Rosen and other patent system proponents predict. In fact, it happens the opposite way. That is, greater IP protection trails
periods of greater innovation. That is, what happens is that the industrialization period or a period of great innovation happens, and then those who led the way get upset about new competitors and new upstarts, and push for greater protectionist policies to keep the competitors out
of the market. In fact, Rosen's later comments highlight why intellectual property tends to slow down
the rate of industrialization, rather than aid it:
William Rosen: Sustained technological innovation is incremental -- small improvements. And that was the real magic of the era: all these micro inventions from one-time blacksmiths and carpenters... And that's why a steam engine could be made to operate a toy in the first century in Alexandria, but a working one... takes a village.
Odd wording choices aside, the problem with patents is that they get in the way of this kind of incremental innovation. Patents are designed to protect the big breakthroughs... and then limit follow-on innovation for the course of the patent. If the big breakthrough is the most important thing, then you can maybe
make an argument that patents make sense. But, most innovation is, as Rosen notes, about that incremental improvements, where "it takes a village." But a patent denies the "village" the opportunity to make those improvements (at least without adding a significant cost) and thus delays innovation.
In fact, this is why research into the history of the steam engine suggested that innovation on the core James Watt invention was limited until after his patents expired