Market Institute President Charles Sauer has a new piece in the Washington Examiner’s Restoring America series on the importance of patents.
“Patents are one of the greatest assets in our society.
Patents, however, are also constantly under attack. Patents are labeled by people that would like to use them (or use them for free) as impediments. In fact, whole studies have been produced by think tanks quantifying these costs. At the same time, these same studies have ignored the benefits of patents. Given that Tuesday is World Intellectual Property Day, it’s a good day to reflect on those benefits.
Thomas Jefferson had some reservations about patents because they gave the inventor a monopoly — even for a limited time. Yet he came around to the idea, and a patent bill was passed in the first Congress. Writing to his friend Benjamin Vaughan in 1790 a few months after the Act was passed, Jefferson observed that “an act of Congress authorising the issuing patents for new discoveries has given a spring to invention beyond my conception.”
Jefferson could see that new ideas were being patented. He understood that this would change the world as we knew it. In fact, in the same letter, Jefferson continues to discuss an invention regarding the treatment and preservation of wood to stop worm infestation.
As a legal document, patents are complex. As public policy, the language feels arcane and dense. But despite all of these obstacles, the incentives that patents give our nation’s innovators and inventors have built our economy into something that is likely beyond even Jefferson’s ideal. Patents encourage inventors to invest their hard-earned money into an idea. Patents are what give inventors the assurance that if they invent the next big thing — then that thing is theirs to profit from.
Of course, patents don’t guarantee wealth either. Jefferson also mentions that “many are indeed trifling.” But the government’s job isn’t to pick winners and losers — rather, it is to offer a chance for winners.
Sadly, when someone owns a patent for the next big thing, others can become jealous. Patents can be one of the most frustrating public policies for politicians, for example. If political terms lasted more than 20 years, then politicians might be able to take the long view. But political terms are two years, four years, or six years. Politicians thus have the incentive to take the shorter-run view that patents restrict growth and innovation.
Regardless, history is clear. Patents are good for America and good for its people.”