Does the Patent System Itself Need an Innovation?


Earlier this week, Rachel Burger wrote about the 3D Printer and how patents are related. Rachel closed the post with a definitive condemnation: “Intellectual property is merely another overreaching hand of the government, and libertarians have no business supporting it.” I am, however, one of the libertarians that disagree with her. For me, patents represent an exchange between inventors/innovators and the public.

It is important to see both the costs and the benefits of patents in order to make an informed opinion. I agree with Rachel in her critique of them, citing them as something that drives prices and government intervention up; however, private property rights (AKA patents) are important in every market place. Many who condemn patents are imagining a world in which every company guards its secrets like Coca-Cola does or a world in which everyone engages in first-to-market practices. Those ideas are great, in theory, until you get to ideas that can easily be copied – like, college student Matthew Younkle’s “perfect” beer nozzle that pours beer more quickly and with less foam.

Figuring out how to balance the costs and benefits of patents is a difficult, if not impossible, feat. As the United States patent system currently stands, we may be facing a system whose costs outweigh its benefits. Patents are granted so liberally that patent trolls are a real problem and are actively hampering innovation. One solution to this problem would be to require a high burden of proof that the patent is necessary to recover research and development costs. This way we could foster innovation that is important, like the 3D Printer.

Of course, that solution brings into question the subjective theory of value – in other words, I might consider a 3D Printer the most important innovation of our time, but you might firmly believe that’s Mr. Younkle’s beer nozzle. But, in the meantime while companies are too frightened of lawsuits to innovate, is this alternative worse than giving out a patent for, say, swinging on a swing? Oh yeah, that’s real. A patent lawyer, on behalf of his five-year-old son, submitted this as a joke…and it was approved.

One way to look at patents is to consider them an exchange: inventors and innovators agree to make their products public in exchange for a time-limited monopoly. In order to recover R&D costs, the patent-holder is given a monopoly in order to gain profit and, after the patent length is up, their formula/details are released for the general public, in order to be improved upon in the future.

Bottom line, I do not feel it is fair to say that patents definitively harm or help innovation. There are many studies on both sides of the debate. For me, it is a property rights issue.

Instead of completely eliminating patents, it’s time to innovate the system.



*Author’s Note: Some research in this article was provided by Dr. Brooke Conaway, an Economics professor at Georgia College & State University.