Thursday, December 25, 2008

Patents: Invention vs. Innovation

I just read the cover article in my latest copy of The Freeman, the 52-year flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education. It is titled "Do Patents Encourage Innovation? The Case of the Steam Engine," found here. It is an interesting article on how history, in this case the history of the steam engine, has shown that patents seem to stifle innovation. Now, I'm not saying that I agree with the authors, but it did spark some thought wanderings on the claim. 

To understand how such a claim is strengthened by the case of the steam engine, you'll have to read the article. But the more I think about it, the more I come back to a big question. Though patents may stifle innovation, do they encourage invention? That really is the big question. After all, without a guarantee of monopoly on an idea, just how big is the incentive to invent anything at all. Then again, monopolies hurt consumers by eliminating competition and weakening the incentive to innovate. Perhaps patent protection can be revised or even somehow privatized. At this point, I don't know what's been discussed and debated out there regarding patents, but maybe one day my curiosity will take me there.

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