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Patents Against Prosperity

Publication Date: 
August 01, 2011
Source: 
The Economist

Professor Mark Lemley’s paper on "The Myth of the Sole Inventor" is featured in the below Economist story titled “Patents Against Prosperity.”

AMERICA is still in denial, but among economists and wonks I think the hard truth is settling in: we're not as rich as we thought we were and our prospects for future high growth rates aren't looking so great. America's last best hope for breaking free from what Tyler Cowen has called "the great stagnation" is the discovery of new "disruptive" technologies that would transform the possibilities of economic production in the way the fossil-fuel-powered engine did. As it stands, growth, such as it is, depends largely on many thousands of small innovations increasing efficiency incrementally along many thousands of margins. Innovation and invention is the key to continuing gains in prosperity.

Zero-sum "win the future" rhetoric notwithstanding, it doesn't much matter whether the advances in new technology occur in China, India or America. Nevertheless, it remains that America is the world's leader in technical invention, and continues to attract many of the world's most inventive minds. That's why it is so important that America remain especially conducive to innovation. And that's why America's intellectual-property system is a travesty which threatens the wealth and welfare of the whole world. It may seem a recondite subject, but the stakes couldn't be higher.

...

A new paper on "The Myth of the Sole Inventor" by Mark Lemley, a professor of law at Stanford, reinforces Mr Sanchez's point.

[S]urveys of hundreds of significant new technologies show that almost all of them are invented simultaneously or nearly simultaneously by two or more teams working independently of each other. Invention appears in significant part to be a social, not an individual, phenomenon. Inventors build on the work of those who came before, and new ideas are often "in the air," or result from changes in market demand or the availability of new or cheaper starting materials. ...

The result is a real problem for classic theories of patent law. If we are supposed to be encouraging only inventions that others in the field couldn’t have made, we should be paying a lot more attention than we currently do to simultaneous invention. We should be issuing very few patents – surely not the 200,000 per year we do today. And we should be denying patents on the vast majority of the most important inventions, since most seem to involve near-simultaneous invention.