Patent Alternatives (was Common Goods...)

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Fri, 28 Mar 1997 15:20:31 -0800 (PST)

(Sorry if this appears twice. It is forwarded from a similar
discussion in humainites.philosophy.objectivism, and I may have
forwarded it incorrectly.)

Amid the usual invective, Brad Aisa includes some real content:

>There are facts which give rise to the need for intellectual property
>rights. The principle fact is that unique intellectual and material
>products of human invention do not come from nowhere, and can only in
>principle be maintained if the originators can then derive profit from
>them, not by luck or maybe's, but by right. In the case of material
>inventions, it is often an easy matter to copy what has been invented once
>invented (this is the whole root of the means whereby evil in any manner
>can flourish -- it is much easier to parasitize than to originate, provided
>the hosts permit it). It can take a decade or more of research to develop a
>new drug and the means of its synthesis. From there, any third rate hack
>entrepreneur can copy the formula. Meanwhile, the originator has expended
>the massive capital in development, and in the long-range needs of the
>product's support. The parasite need only pay for what is immediately
>required to produce the product. This is not fair.

True, the high-investment invention is a fact of reality we have to deal
with. But to say that our current method of dealing with it--patents--
is the /only/ method is not resoning, it's just paucity of imagination.

Drugs in particular don't really have this problem, because in a free
economy (i.e., not one crippled by the FDA like ours), one can sell a drug
without revealing the process by which it was created, and processes cannot
be easily deduced from results. One thing a patent does is /require/
disclosure of the process, whether the creator wants to or not. Without
patents, old-fashioned secrecy would take up much of the slack.

But the long-toiling inventor meme /does/ apply to some cases--very few
of the actual patents issued, I contend, but to some nonetheless, so that
fact does need to be dealt with.

Let us first observe that since the final act of invention is usually a
single observation at the end of a process of work, the act of invention
itself is sepearate from the act of investing in the research that led
to it. The inventor might have invested his own time, but more likely
he was working under grant or employ, where quite properly the rewards
of the invention go mostly to his patron. It is not, then, the final
fortuitous act of invention or discovery that created the value, but
rather the act of /investment/, speculation, or foresight that led the
inventor to spend time on otherwise unprofitable work. The question
then becomes how do we properly reward accurate foresight or courageous
speculation in the act of research funding?

Patents are certainly one way to do that: you invested the time and
money to make the discovery, so we grant you a monopoly for a time to
profit from it. It would perhaps improve the system a bit if we granted
the time of the patent in proportion to the demonstrable amount of time
and money invested in the discovery rather than a fixed amount; that
way such random happenstance as Goodyear's discovery of vulcanized
rubber would become available sooner than the invention of someone who
actually spent some time to reseach.

Another possible system would be an invention futures market: let the
people who need something invented (say, those who suffer from some
disease and need a cure) invest money in a prize to be awarded to the
first person who succeeds in discovering it. They could even go to
the others who might need it and have them sign a contract that they
will buy it from the one who gets the prize, so those contracts become
part of the prize: the first one who gets there gets the money and the
contracts. In fact, the actual money isn't necessary--since we have
pre-sold the future invention for an agreed price, the value of those
contracts can be used to judge how much investment should be put into
each possible field.

That way, speculators can view the futures market for the big prizes,
or prizes for things they have expertise in, and decide how to invest
their money in research. The researchers themselves get paid for the
work they do, the speculators get the big prize, and the accidental
inventions made along the way still have the advantage of being first
to market and possible secrecy, and no monopolies were needed.

Lee Daniel Crocker <>  <>
"All inventions or works of authorship original to me, herein and past,
are placed irrevocably in the public domain, and may be used or modified
for any purpose, without permission, attribution, or notification."--LDC