Friday, February 20, 2015

Economy-Sapping Patent Trolls or the other Vultures

The question of whether patents promote or hinder economic progress is unresolved and probably divides the profession. Not always according to orthodox/heterodox lines, I might add. I'm a patent agnostic, as you would know from a few posts (see here or here), in particular because I'm skeptical about the role of property rights in general in promoting innovation, and because I tend to believe in the role of expanding demand in technological innovation.

My reading of the evidence is that patents delayed the development of the steamboat, for example, often considered the first major American contribution to technological progress. The thing is that the notion that patents stimulate innovation is based on a sort of hero or great man theory of history, the god like figure that invents a solution out of nothing and transforms the world. This does not describe the messy, incremental process of technological development that seems to be behind every economically significant innovation.

At any rate, two CEOs wrote this piece for the Wall Street Journal (yes, my favorite kind of people, in my most cherished news source). They do note that their: "companies [Cisco and JC Penney] alone have spent well more than a third of a billion dollars in the last five years defending [them]selves against cases brought by patent-assertion entities." Patent-assertion entities are companies that file for patents, and do not produce anything. Like the Vulture Hedge Funds, they make their money in litigation. I love the nickname, Patent Trolls. And this would be additional evidence on the limitations of the patent system.

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