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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 real things.

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 being cheated.

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Invention Patents