Friday, August 23, 2013

Data About Patents

All major countries in the world have patent systems, and most of these must abide by treaties like the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property and the Patent Cooperation Treaty.  All members of the World Trade Organization ("WTO") are legally obligated to ensure that their patent systems meet the minimal requirements of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights ("TRIPS").  It would thus be reasonable to assume that patents do, indeed, spur technological innovation.  However, solid evidence for this assumption has proved elusive.  In several experimental studies my colleague, Bill Tomlinson, and I conducted, entitled "Patents and the Regress of Useful Arts," "Patent Expertise and the Regress of Useful Arts," and "Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Patents: One Experimental View of the Cathedral," our data failed to show that patents spur technological innovation.

Patents may indeed work well to encourage new inventions, but evidence to support this would be beneficial in helping to guide wise public policy.To this end, telecommunications firm Qualcomm Incorporated announced on August 22, 2013, that it donated $2,000,000 to the Searle Center on Law, Regulation, and Economic Growth at Northwestern University to fund research into the connections between patent protection and technological innovation. As the press release states,
The grant will make it possible for the Searle Center to create a series of related databases to collate information regarding standards, licensing, litigation and markets for patents. Scholars will be able to use these data to better understand how inventive activity occurs, how it is commercialized and what might be done to facilitate future innovation. The grant also funds a series of conferences and roundtables to examine and improve research in the field.
Research into how patent systems actually function is fundamentally important to social welfare.  If patents work well, then countries can confidently use them to increase the rate of technological development.  If they do not accomplish this goal - or even thwart it - then wise public policy may employ other approaches, such as open, user, and collaborative innovation.  Reliable data on patent systems is vital.  More research is needed.  Society will benefit, whatever the results may be.