Robust Patent and Copyright Systems Promote a Strong U.S. Economy – and Are Consistent with Originalist Understandings of the Constitution

Alden Abbott —  21 June 2016

In a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum released today, I explore both the “constitutionalist” as well as utilitarian, economic-welfare-oriented justifications for robust U.S. patent and copyright systems.  The Memorandum explains:

Intellectual property (IP) is increasingly important to the American private economy, and a discussion of the appropriate public policy toward IP is timely, particularly given the recent growth in public skepticism toward IP rights. Robust federal protection for IP is not just important to America’s economic future, but also consistent with constitutional originalism and the early U.S. historical understanding of the nature and role of IP.

Critical scrutiny has focused on the federal patent and copyright systems, which are authorized by the Patent and Copyright Clause (IP Clause) of the U.S. Constitution. The following discussion of IP also focuses on patents and copyrights. The other two principal forms of intellectual property, trademarks and trade secrets, are the subject of federal legislation pursuant to the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution,as well as protections in state law. These forms have received less critical attention lately and are beyond the scope of this commentary.

Contrary to what some critics have argued, the robust protection of patents and copyrights as property is consistent with the original understanding of the Framers of the Constitution, who viewed IP through the lens of natural rights. During the early stages of the Republic, leading commentators and legislators, as well as President Abraham Lincoln, held IP rights in high regard. Supporters of robust IP rights can therefore claim the force of history and constitutional political philosophy, while critics fail in their claims that IP rights are special privileges that should be deemed second-class property rights (if they qualify as rights at all).

Admittedly, the fact that IP rights have solid constitutional backing does not address the question of how Congress should deal with them today. One might ask whether Congress, consistent with its authority under the IP Clause, should cut back on IP rights for pragmatic reasons, such as strengthening the American economy. Far from being inefficient, monopolistic drags on economic efficiency as some critics have suggested, however, the patent and copyright systems are vital to innovation, wealth creation, and economic growth.

Thus, calls to degrade IP rights are misplaced and, if heeded, would prove detrimental to the American economy. Congress and the executive branch should enhance rather than lessen the protection of American IP rights both in the United States and around the world.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.