Invention Patents - Justified and Necessary?
It is assumed by many that patents are necessary to spur development
of new inventions and innovations. One important premise in this
argument is that the ability to profit from the exclusive right
to an idea (or to the physical implementation of that idea) is
what motivates much of the innovation in the world. This seems
to be especially true in areas like drug patents, where millions
of dollars in research is required to bring a new drug to market
- millions that probably wouldn't be spent if every company could
copy the end result and sell it cheaper.
However, there is not compelling evidence that patents always
lead to more inventions. For much of the nineteenth century neither
Holland nor Switzerland had a patent system, yet innovation flourished
and inventors generally did not choose to leave either country.
In the twentieth century the following inventions are just some
of those that were never patented (there are related patents
for some of these): ballpoint pens, automatic transmissions,
cellophane, safety razors, jet engines, cyclotrons, power steering,
magnetic recording, zippers and gyro-compasses.
Despite the likelihood that many or most inventions would
have happened with or without patents, the example of drugs and
other innovations suggests that we will have more beneficial
inventions with some legal protection for the inventors.
From a moral perspective, however, there are problems with
the idea of patents. Property rights are not as clear as they
might seem, and intellectual property is of another class than
Interestingly, some of the most vocal supporters of the patent
system are among those in libertarian circles, yet the very idea
violates their most defining philosophical position. Libertarians
generally believe that no person has the right to initiate the
use of force against another. Stealing from or hitting a person
is initiating force, but using force to reclaim property or to
bring a thief or assailant to justice is not - it is a response
to the initiation of force, a protecting of individual rights.
Most who believe in this conception of rights add fraud as variety
of force under the general idea that it involves getting something
that the defrauded person would not have surrendered without
force if deception were not involved.
Now, if I steal a table from you, that is theft, and justifies
force in response. But what if I simply note the design of a
table that you built and use it to build my own? How have I initiated
force against you? If I have not, there is no justification -
at least in libertarian philosophy - to use force against me
to stop me from doing this, or to punish me for my action. Furthermore,
this isn't always a matter of the outright theft of an idea.
The history of inventions is full of examples of multiple inventors
working on the same problem at the same time, with essentially
identical results. In such cases there is no moral justification
for assigning "ownership" of the resulting idea based
on nothing more than who makes it to a patent office first.
For myself, I favor the idea of laws that recognize intellectual
property. This includes invention patents, but also trademark
and copyright laws. I think they benefit us generally as societies
and as individuals. But the argument is a practical one of social
utility, not necessarily one of rights. As much as I would like
to believe in property rights to abstract ideas, the rights argument
is not an easy one to make.
It certainly feels offensive and wrong to have someone simply
take what I have written and call it their own. But perhaps this
is a different kind of case from inventions. We can easily conceive
of (and point to historical examples of) more than one person
creating the same invention at the same time, but two people
somehow writing exactly the same story or article using the same
words is not credible - thus we are at least certain that the
latter involves stealing someone's ideas.
Are invention patents necessary and justified? I like to think
so, but the arguments are weak if we base them on the premise
of property rights, and I can't help but feel that the second
man to the patent office with a great new invention is somehow