Re: Very good discussion by me of Intellectual Property Rights ;-)

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Mon, 4 Jan 1999 11:49:29 -0800 (PST)

> > But it _has_ been tested: the thousands of years of human history
> > before the newfangled idea of patents were as productive and
> > creative as today. Agriculture, construction, toolmaking, money,
> > clothing, cooking, boats, roads, water power, and countless other
> > technologies that are so commonplace we hardly think of them as
> > high-tech were all invented long before patents.
> On the contrary, it took thousands of years for these inventions to
> be developed. The rate of advancement was far slower in the past
> than it is today.
> Historical tests like this are not very meaningful, because so many
> variables are changing. We saw an increase in economic growth rates, from
> a doubling time of 500-1000 years to one of about 100 years in the 18th
> century, with a futher increase to a doubling time of 10-20 years in the
> 20th century. Someone who wanted to promote patents could suggest that
> they played a large role in motivating this increase, and that without
> patents we would be back to 500-1000 years to double our economic output.

More obvious factors are simple population and more efficient communication. I would argue that the explosion in development happened in spite of IP law (which limits communication), not because of it; but you are right that such historical tests are dangerous and often misleading. I would point out, though, that the increases you mention happening in the 18th century must be credited to pre-patent ingenuity; patents were not a factor until the 19th century.

Even if we concede that patents increase the speed of development, history shows that the argument that development would not happen at all without them still fails, and the price we pay for this increased innovation (in things like quality and service) may still be too high.

A philosophical question to ponder: are novelty and innovation inherently valuable? Or are they, like money, valuable only insofar as they are used to produce more of what we value for itself (life, pleasure, etc.)? Patents serve to increase the production of novelty (that is, things that are very different from existing things) rather than the gradual refinement and evolution of natural development, so our answer to that question is important in assessing their value.

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