More Evidence that the Patent System Promotes Dynamic Competition and Consumer Welfare

Alden Abbott —  7 September 2021

The patent system is too often caricatured as involving the grant of “monopolies” that may be used to delay entry and retard competition in key sectors of the economy. The accumulation of allegedly “poor-quality” patents into thickets and portfolios held by “patent trolls” is said by critics to spawn excessive royalty-licensing demands and threatened “holdups” of firms that produce innovative products and services. These alleged patent abuses have been characterized as a wasteful “tax” on high-tech implementers of patented technologies, which inefficiently raises price and harms consumer welfare.

Fortunately, solid scholarship has debunked these stories and instead pointed to the key role patents play in enhancing competition and driving innovation. See, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Nevertheless, early indications are that the Biden administration may be adopting a patent-skeptical attitude. Such an attitude was revealed, for example, in the president’s July 9 Executive Order on Competition (which suggested an openness to undermining the Bayh-Dole Act by using march-in rights to set prices; to weakening pharmaceutical patent rights; and to weakening standard essential patents) and in the administration’s inexplicable decision to waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines (see here and here).

Before it takes further steps that would undermine patent protections, the administration should consider new research that underscores how patents help to spawn dynamic market growth through “design around” competition and through licensing that promotes new technologies and product markets.

Patents Spawn Welfare-Enhancing ‘Design Around’ Competition

Critics sometimes bemoan the fact that patents covering a new product or technology allegedly retard competition by preventing new firms from entering a market. (Never mind the fact that the market might not have existed but for the patent.) This thinking, which confuses a patent with a product-market monopoly, is badly mistaken. It is belied by the fact that the publicly available patented technology itself (1) provides valuable information to third parties; and (2) thereby incentivizes them to innovate and compete by refining technologies that fall outside the scope of the patent. In short, patents on important new technologies stimulate, rather than retard, competition. They do this by leading third parties to “design around” the patented technology and thus generate competition that features a richer set of technological options realized in new products.

The importance of design around is revealed, for example, in the development of the incandescent light bulb market in the late 19th century, in reaction to Edison’s patent on a long-lived light bulb. In a 2021 article in the Journal of Competition Law and Economics, Ron D. Katznelson and John Howells did an empirical study of this important example of product innovation. The article’s synopsis explains:

Designing around patents is prevalent but not often appreciated as a means by which patents promote economic development through competition. We provide a novel empirical study of the extent and timing of designing around patent claims. We study the filing rate of incandescent lamp-related patents during 1878–1898 and find that the enforcement of Edison’s incandescent lamp patent in 1891–1894 stimulated a surge of patenting. We studied the specific design features of the lamps described in these lamp patents and compared them with Edison’s claimed invention to create a count of noninfringing designs by filing date. Most of these noninfringing designs circumvented Edison’s patent claims by creating substitute technologies to enable participation in the market. Our forward citation analysis of these patents shows that some had introduced pioneering prior art for new fields. This indicates that invention around patents is not duplicative research and contributes to dynamic economic efficiency. We show that the Edison lamp patent did not suppress advance in electric lighting and the market power of the Edison patent owner weakened during this patent’s enforcement. We propose that investigation of the effects of design around patents is essential for establishing the degree of market power conferred by patents.

In a recent commentary, Katznelson highlights the procompetitive consumer welfare benefits of the Edison light bulb design around:

GE’s enforcement of the Edison patent by injunctions did not stifle competition nor did it endow GE with undue market power, let alone a “monopoly.” Instead, it resulted in clear and tangible consumer welfare benefits. Investments in design-arounds resulted in tangible and measurable dynamic economic efficiencies by (a) increased competition, (b) lamp price reductions, (c) larger choice of suppliers, (d) acceleration of downstream development of new electric illumination technologies, and (e) collateral creation of new technologies that would not have been developed for some time but for the need to design around Edison’s patent claims. These are all imparted benefits attributable to patent enforcement.

Katznelson further explains that “the mythical harm to innovation inflicted by enforcers of pioneer patents is not unique to the Edison case.” He cites additional research debunking claims that the Wright brothers’ pioneer airplane patent seriously retarded progress in aviation (“[a]ircraft manufacturing and investments grew at an even faster pace after the assertion of the Wright Brothers’ patent than before”) and debunking similar claims made about the early radio industry and the early automobile industry. He also notes strong research refuting the patent holdup conjecture regarding standard essential patents. He concludes by bemoaning “infringers’ rhetoric” that “suppresses information on the positive aspects of patent enforcement, such as the design-around effects that we study in this article.”

The Bayh-Dole Act: Licensing that Promotes New Technologies and Product Markets

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 has played an enormously important role in accelerating American technological innovation by creating a property rights-based incentive to use government labs. As this good summary from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization puts it, it “[e]mpowers universities, small businesses and non-profit institutions to take ownership [through patent rights] of inventions made during federally-funded research, so they can license these basic inventions for further applied research and development and broader public use.”

The act has continued to generate many new welfare-enhancing technologies and related high-tech business opportunities even during the “COVID slowdown year” of 2020, according to a newly released survey by a nonprofit organization representing the technology management community (see here):  

° The number of startup companies launched around academic inventions rose from 1,040 in 2019 to 1,117 in 2020. Almost 70% of these companies locate in the same state as the research institution that licensed them—making Bayh-Dole a critical driver of state and regional economic development;
° Invention disclosures went from 25,392 to 27,112 in 2020;
° New patent applications increased from 15,972 to 17,738;
° Licenses and options went from 9,751 in ’19 to 10,050 in ’20, with 60% of licenses going to small companies; and
° Most impressive of all—new products introduced to the market based on academic inventions jumped from 711 in 2019 to 933 in 2020.

Despite this continued record of success, the Biden Administration has taken actions that create uncertainty about the government’s support for Bayh-Dole.  

As explained by the Congressional Research Service, “march-in rights allow the government, in specified circumstances, to require the contractor or successors in title to the patent to grant a ‘nonexclusive, partially exclusive, or exclusive license’ to a ‘responsible applicant or applicants.’ If the patent owner refuses to do so, the government may grant the license itself.” Government march-in rights thus far have not been invoked, but a serious threat of their routine invocation would greatly disincentivize future use of Bayh-Dole, thereby undermining patent-backed innovation.

Despite this, the president’s July 9 Executive Order on Competition (noted above) instructed the U.S. Commerce Department to defer finalizing a regulation (see here) “that would have ensured that march-in rights under Bayh Dole would not be misused to allow the government to set prices, but utilized for its statutory intent of providing oversight so good faith efforts are being made to turn government-funded innovations into products. But that’s all up in the air now.”

What’s more, a new U.S. Energy Department policy that would more closely scrutinize Bayh-Dole patentees’ licensing transactions and acquisitions (apparently to encourage more domestic manufacturing) has raised questions in the Bayh-Dole community and may discourage licensing transactions (see here and here). Added to this is the fact that “prominent Members of Congress are pressing the Biden Administration to misconstrue the march-in rights clause to control prices of products arising from National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense funding.” All told, therefore, the outlook for continued patent-inspired innovation through Bayh-Dole processes appears to be worse than it has been in many years.

Conclusion

The patent system does far more than provide potential rewards to enhance incentives for particular individuals to invent. The system also creates a means to enhance welfare by facilitating the diffusion of technology through market processes (see here).

But it does even more than that. It actually drives new forms of dynamic competition by inducing third parties to design around new patents, to the benefit of consumers and the overall economy. As revealed by the Bayh-Dole Act, it also has facilitated the more efficient use of federal labs to generate innovation and new products and processes that would not otherwise have seen the light of day. Let us hope that the Biden administration pays heed to these benefits to the American economy and thinks again before taking steps that would further weaken our patent system.     

Alden Abbott

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Alden Abbott is a a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, focusing on antitrust issues. He previously served as the Federal Trade Commission’s General Counsel from 2018 to early 2021.