Microsoft Calls for a Single “World Patent”
Last week Microsoft Corporate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Horacio Gutierrez opined “In today’s world of universal connectivity, global business and collaborative innovation, it is time for a world patent that is derived from a single patent application, examined and prosecuted by a single examining authority and litigated before a single judicial body.” Gutierrez suggests the motivation behind such a “World Patent” is that “[t]he cost of this workload to patent applicants and patent offices is too high, and the delays in securing patents are too long for entrepreneurs and large enterprises alike.”
Why This is Good For Microsoft
Reducing the time and costs associated with obtaining worldwide monopolies should be clear. If you have the money and power to enforce these rights, a world patent would allow you to stifle innovation everywhere without having to expend additional resources. For almost no additional cost, large foreign companies could obtain monopolies in the United States, even if they had absolutely no intention of ever marketing or licensing their products here. From an economic perspective, this would be extremely wasteful for both present and future generations. Not only would no one in the United States ever use the product, but no one in the United States would ever have the opportunity to improve the product.
The Evil Ought Not Last
Everyone agrees patents are a burden on society. Patents are evil. We bear this evil only because the benefit to the public good of motivating inventors to develop technology which eventually moves into the public domain outweighs the associated evil of the limited monopoly. At least that is the theory. Although he was discussing copyrights at the time, the words of Lord Macaulay are just as true today: “For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good.” By the same token, the evil monopoly ought not extend a meter further than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good. Patents do not exist to assuage the evil, or make life easier on mega corporations. They exist to benefit the public. Extending patents rights beyond the bare minimum necessary to encourage innovation is an immoral tax on consumers. Extending the geographic scope of patents steals from the many to benefit the few; the exact opposite of what the patent grant was created to accomplish.
Lessons From Copyright
Nowhere is the harm of irresponsibly extending intellectual property protections more obvious than in the area of copyright. Kowtowing to special interest groups, Congress has repeatedly increased copyright terms. In 1998, with the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, (more pejoratively known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act for its particular benefit to Disney) the term of copyright is now the life of the author plus 70 years. Do these extensions increase the motivation to produce copyrighted material? Hardly likely. Given the drastically diminishing returns on copyrighted work, anything more than 20 years of protection does very little to motivate additional creation. On the other hand, the additional 70 or so odd years of monopoly does much to penalize the general public. So what we end up with is a minor benefit for the tiny percentage of huge companies able to derive increasing income after the first 20 years of protection, and a huge tax on the rest of us. Just the opposite of what copyright law was designed to do.
Just as ridiculous extensions of copyright protection punish the public, so do ridiculous extensions of the geographic reach of patents. The problem is that when these anti-society laws extend beyond the bare minimum temporal and regional limitations, they keep the majority of the useful intellectual property out of the hands of the public, without increasing the entrepreneurial motivation to produce more intellectual property. Take for instance a small inventor, interested in only producing a product in a small regional market. If the inventor can just as easily protect the invention around the world, no one but those in the small region receive any benefit from the invention. More importantly, the motivation to improve on the invention anywhere else in the world diminishes dramatically.
Why This is Horribly, Horribly Bad For You
Granting inventors a monopoly for a short period of time, in a narrow geographic region is a small price to pay for motivation it provides to produce better and better technology. If the invention is truly groundbreaking, with world-wide appeal, the inventor is currently free to pursue individual patents around the world. The difference is that currently the inventor must feel he or she has the resources to bring the benefits of the innovation to each country in which the patent is sought. A world patent will eliminate this cost/benefit analysis. Innovation will plummet, and prices for old technology will remain high. You, the public, will pay increasingly premium prices for decreasingly valuable technology. The biggest problem is that this change will be irreversible. Once implemented, it will be near impossible to return to the present system of quid pro quo. Mega-corporations are banking on the public’s naïveté in their attempt to bully this change into law. By the time you realize the damage world patents are causing, it will be too late to take action.
But now you know.