Patents don't aid innovation, critics say

Apple and Samsung have both recently sued each other over alleged patent infringement (Photos: Pawel Kopczynski, Reuters).
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Brooks Hays

Abolish the patent system. That's the conclusion arrived at by economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine in their paper, "The Case Against Patents," most recently published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Boldrin and Levine, both professors at Washington University in St. Louis, argue that the role of intellectual property in innovation and growth has been greatly overstated.

A recent article on Michigan bolsters their point: the state comes in 6th in the nation in number of patents granted last year, as Michigan Live reports, but in terms of GDP-per-worker, a measure of productivity, it ranks just 31st.

"The Case Against Patents" was originally written for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and published in the fall of last year. Outside of the Washington Post's "Wonkblog," few mass media outlets gave it any attention.

But the economists' case is compelling and provocative. It presents a stark counterpoint to President Barack Obama's 2011 patent reform legislation, which was aimed mostly at streamlining the government's patent process, as the Huffington Post reports.

In addition to debunking the traditional rationale for intellectual property rights — that patent and copyright laws go hand in hand with innovation and productivity — the economists argue patents hinder growth. For example, they help keep prescription drugs cost high and play to the advantage of mature companies jockeying to maintain dominance, rather than opening the playing field to startups.

What's more, Boldrin and Levine say billions of dollars are lost to patent litigation each year, and that patent trolls — companies whose only business is the ownership and enforcement of patents — are a considerable drain on the economy.

It’s competition that begets innovation, not intellectual property rights, the two economists argue.

In a recent critique of the paper, Richard Gilbert, emeritus professor of economics at UC Berkeley, says getting rid of patents doesn't make sense even if the system is flawed. Gilbert contends there is little evidence to show that a world without patents would be an upgrade on the current situation. He argues Boldrin and Levine should try to improve the system, not kill it.