Shower Thoughts on IP

Tim Harford has an excellent column on IP:

There is a broad logic to intellectual property, then. But the specifics can be questioned. For example, just how temporary is the monopoly? F Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby in 1925 and died in 1940. The work only entered the public domain in 2021, after several posthumous copyright extensions, none of which can have been much of an incentive for him to write more.

Then there is the question of what deserves protection. At the height of the dotcom boom, an economics professor, Alex Tabarrok, was taking a shower when he dreamed up the idea of using cell phones to scan barcodes in a store, compare prices and order the product online. Alas, someone else had beaten him to the patent office by mere months. The idea, once unthinkable, was by 1999 rather obvious.

But why should society award 20 years of monopoly rights for the kind of idea that an amateur could dream up in the shower? Tabarrok suggests — rightly — that a 20-year patent should be awarded only if the inventor can prove the idea was expensive to develop. Without that, a five-year patent should be sufficient reward — and, more importantly, sufficient incentive.

I agree entirely with Harford’s concluding comments:

…If we are to produce the extra doses we need, we should focus on lifting every constraint. Perhaps patents fall into that category, but it seems more likely that they are a distraction from the expense of subsidising new factories and more doses for low-income countries. We should spend that money willingly, both for moral and for self-interested reasons.

As for intellectual property, the system needs to change in a hundred ways, some of which require the weakening of intellectual property and the strengthening of other incentives such as prizes and targeted subsidies. When we think through those changes, we should spend less time looking for victims and villains in the creative sphere — and more time thinking about where new ideas come from, and how they can be nurtured.

Read my piece on patent reform. Astute readers will note that there’s no contradiction between thinking that the patent system is in general too strong and that pharmaceutical patents increase innovation and that patents are not a major bottleneck to COVID vaccines. It’s all about evaluating tradeoffs in different scenarios.

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