The Hill: Strong patent system essential to strong innovation economy, by David J. Kappos
This post originally appeared in The Hill on August 20, 2015.
“I have not failed. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.” The quote, ascribed to celebrated inventor (and prolific patent holder) Thomas Edison, captures the innate optimism of those who engage in the exhausting, risk-laden work of innovation.
Without the promise of a patent, emulating Edison’s level of dedication would often require limitless resources or irrational zealotry. The modern patent system was founded on the premise that making innovation viable for rational actors requires incentives substantial enough to offset the enormous risk of failure. Innovators will explore the frontiers of technology only if the cost of discovering ten thousand ways that don’t work might be recouped by discovering one that does.
Patents have long served as a key currency of innovation, and the patent system has long endured attempts to devalue that currency. Articles published in the August 8 issue of The Economist continue this regrettable tradition, pairing conclusory pronouncements with outdated, selectively presented studies in an effort to prop up its misguided thesis: that the patent system is an obstacle to innovation.
Opponents of patents suggest that incentives to innovate exist without patents, and the absence of the property right would make the fruits of innovation more accessible. Among the problems with this narrative is that it relies on a false assumption—that in the absence of patents, innovation will simply occur in the open, freely available to all. This ignores the obvious alternative—that innovative ideas will be kept secret, preventing copying by others while capturing the benefits of inventions solely for inventors themselves, in perpetuity. This approach has long prevailed in countries lacking effective patent protection. In fact, one of the reasons for adopting early patent systems was the shortcomings of the guilds, where secrets of industrial technology were closely guarded, both erecting insurmountable barriers to market entry and stunting technological advancement.