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Work and prosperity
13 September 2013

Heresy of the week: The case for abolishing patents

If there’s one thing that unites the right, it’s respect for property. This includes intellectual property, which modern societies defend through legal mechanisms like the patent system.

And yet there’s a problem with patents. When they’re too broadly defined, they can act as a break on innovation and therefore growth. Ideas and concepts that should properly belong in the public domain are instead monopolised, enabling those who happen to own the property rights to extract economic rents from genuine innovators and entrepreneurs. Such rights are often sold on to third parties – known as ‘patent trolls’ – that specialise in this form of rent-seeking.   

In an article for the Washington Post, Timothy B Lee reports that one industry in particular is suffering as a result:

Though the patent system is all about defending property rights, it is also a form of state bureaucracy – and, as we know, bureaucracies aren’t very good at regulating complex, rapidly-developing industries:

So how do we resolve this dilemma – protecting legitimate property rights while ridding the software industry of its patent trolls? One solution would be to resort to ever more complex regulation:

However, this suggests a future in which technological progress is held up while a growing army of expensive geek-lawyers argue over lines of code. Timothy B Lee argues for a very different course of action:

As the world becomes evermore connected by information and communication technology, with software becoming ubiquitous, we need to decide who we want shaping this future. It seems likely that those countries that opt for innovators and entrepreneurs over lawyers and regulators will have the best of it. 


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