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July 15, 2014
Planet Money on the Case Against Patents
NPR's Planet Money podcast did a segment on the case against patents
. It's mostly an exploration of how one would cope economically in a world without protection for certain kinds of IP. Sadly, they continue the mini-fiction that Tesla is "giving away" its patents
The show is largely based on a paper published by two economists, Michele Boldrin and David Levine in which they argue against patents from an economists perspective. The very first sentence of the paper states baldly that "there is no empirical evidence that patents serve to increase innovation and productivity." In fact, they argue, the opposite is happening. Innovation and productivity in their view happen most from competition and being the first to be able to get something to market (first mover advantage).
As with many grand theories in economics, the proposed changes would include losers and risks. The losers are individuals and small enterprises who now make money from licensing. In their view such people should just go work for big companies that would pay them to do the same innovative work.
The risks come from things like medicine or nuclear power where the idea of patent protection contributes to companies making billion-dollar investments. Boldrin and Levine argue that it would be more efficient for the government to create a system of incentives whereby multiple companies could compete for the work in return for paybacks that would cover their investment. Given how massively inefficient government contracting can be today I'm highly dubious this would increase efficiency in the IP space.
Their "modest proposal" however, seemed like a good idea, which was just to reduce the terms of patents. Presently patent protection is 20 years, so turn that down to 18 and see if it makes any difference. If you get more productivity with less patent protection you could shorten the term still farther. Eventually either you'd find that less patent protection was not increasing innovation or you'd find that you'd reduced protection to zero while increasing innovation in measurable steps along the way.
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