Archives For prizes

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Tim Brennan, (Professor, Economics & Public Policy, University of Maryland; former FCC; former FTC).]

Observers on TOTM and elsewhere have pointed out the importance of preserving patent rights as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies pursue development of treatments for, and better vaccines against,  Covid-19. As the benefits of these treatments could reach into the trillions of dollars (see here for a casual estimate and here for a more serious one), it is hard to imagine a level of reward for successful innovations that is too high.

On the other hand, as these and other commentaries suggest if only implicitly, the high social value of a coronavirus treatment or vaccine may well lead to calls to limit the ability to profit from a patent. It is easy to imagine that a developer of a vaccine will not be able to charge the patent-protected price (note avoidance of the term “monopoly”). It almost certainly will not be able to do so if it cannot use price discrimination in order to allow those lacking the means to pay a uniform higher price to get the vaccine.

However, there is an alternative to patents that have not received much attention in the policy discussion—having the government (Treasury, NIH, CDC) offer a prize in exchange for open access to a successful vaccine or treatment. Prizes are not new; they go back at least to the early 18th century, when Britain offered a prize for improvements in clock accuracy to facilitate ocean-going navigation. Many prizes have been offered by the private sector, both for their own use—Netflix offering a prize for improvements to its movie recommendation algorithm—and to altruistically promote innovation. Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 first solo transatlantic flight, and previous attempts by others, were motivated at least in part by a $25,000 prize offered by a New York hotel owner. 

In light of the net benefits of an improved vaccine, indicated perhaps by the level of spending in enacted and proposed stimulus and rescue programs, a prize of, oh, $25 billion is practically chump change. But would a prize make sense here?

I and two former colleagues at Resources for the Future, Molly Macauley and Kate Whitefoot, analyzed the use of prizes in comparison to patents and other methods to solicit and procure innovation.  This work was inspired by Molly’s interest in NASA’s use of prizes to induce innovations in space exploration equipment. On the theory side, we were interested because models of patents typically treat patents as prizes—the successful innovator gets $X in expected profit—and thus were unable to explain why one might want to choose prizes rather than patents and vice versa

When is a prize a “prize”?

The answer to this question requires being clear on what I mean by a prize. A familiar type of prize is the “best” of something, from first prize in the middle school science fair to the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is not the kind of prize I’m talking about with regard to coming up with a treatment for or vaccine against Covid-19. (George Mason’s Mercatus Center is offering prizes of this sort for things like $50,000 for “best coronavirus policy writing” to $500,000 for “best effort to find a treatment rapidly”; h/t to Geoff Manne.) Rather, it is a prize for being first to achieve a specific outcome, for example, a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. 

A necessary component of such prizes is a winning condition, specified in advance. For example, the $10 million Ansari X Prize to promote commercial space travel was not awarded just for some general demonstration of feasibility that pleased a set of judges. Rather, it specifically went to the first team that could “carry three people 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface twice within two weeks.”  Contestants knew what they had to do, and there was no dispute when the winner met the criterion for getting the prize.

Prizes or patents?

The need for a winning condition highlights one of the two main criteria affecting the choice of patents or prizes: advance knowledge of the specific goal. Economy-wide, the advantage of patents over prizes is that entrepreneurial innovators are rewarded for coming up with sufficiently novel products or processes of value. Knowledge regarding what is worth innovative effort is decentralized and often tacit. On the other hand, if a funder, including the government, knows what it wants sufficiently well that it can specify a winning condition, a prize can be sensible as a way to focus innovative effort toward that desired objective.

The second criterion for choosing between patents and prizes is more subtle. Someone undertaking research effort to come up with a patent bears two risks. The first is the risk that the effort will not be successful, not just overall but in being the first to be able to file for a patent. That risk is essentially shared by those pursuing a prize, where being first involves not filing for a patent but meeting the winning condition. However, patent seekers bear another risk, which is how much the patent will be worth if they win it. Prize seekers do not bear that risk, as the prize is specified in advance. (Economic models of patent activity tend to ignore this variation.) Thus, a prize may induce more risk-averse innovators to compete for the prize.

Assuming a winning condition for a Covid-19 treatment or vaccine can be specified in advance—I leave that to the medical people—our present public health dilemma could be well suited for a prize. As observed earlier, with both net benefits and already made public spending responses in the trillions of dollars, such a prize could and should be quite large. That may be a difficult to sell politically but, as also observed earlier, the government may not be able to commit credibly to allow a patent winner to exploit the treatment or vaccine’s economic value.

Design issues, TBD

If prizes become an appealing way to encourage Covid-19 mitigation innovations, a few design issues remain on the table.

One is whether to have intermediate prizes, with their own winning conditions, to narrow down the field of contestants to those with more promising approaches. One would need some sort of winning condition for this, of course. A second is whether the innovation will be achieved more quickly by allowing contestants to combine efforts. The virtues of competition may be outweighed by being able to hedge bets rather than risk being stuck going down a blind alley.

A third is whether to go with winner-take-all or have second or third prizes. One advantage of multiple prizes is that it can mitigate some risk to innovators, at a potential cost of reducing the effort to win. However, one could imagine here that someone other than the winner might come up with a treatment or vaccine that does better than the winner but was found after the winner met the condition. This leads to a fourth policy choice—should contestants, the winner or others, retain patents, even if the winning treatment of vaccine is freely licensed, to be made available at marginal cost.

All of these choices, along with the choice of whether to offer a prize and what that prize should be, are matters of medical and pharmaceutical judgment. But economics does highlight the potential advantages of a prize and suggest that it may deserve some attention as other policy judgments are being made. 

[Cross posted at the CPIP Blog.]

By Mark Schultz & Adam Mossoff

A handful of increasingly noisy critics of intellectual property (IP) have emerged within free market organizations. Both the emergence and vehemence of this group has surprised most observers, since free market advocates generally support property rights. It’s true that there has long been a strain of IP skepticism among some libertarian intellectuals. However, the surprised observer would be correct to think that the latest critique is something new. In our experience, most free market advocates see the benefit and importance of protecting the property rights of all who perform productive labor – whether the results are tangible or intangible.

How do the claims of this emerging critique stand up? We have had occasion to examine the arguments of free market IP skeptics before. (For example, see here, here, here.) So far, we have largely found their claims wanting.

We have yet another occasion to examine their arguments, and once again we are underwhelmed and disappointed. We recently posted an essay at AEI’s Tech Policy Daily prompted by an odd report recently released by the Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The Mercatus report attacks recent research that supposedly asserts, in the words of the authors of the Mercatus report, that “the existence of intellectual property in an industry creates the jobs in that industry.” They contend that this research “provide[s] no theoretical or empirical evidence to support” its claims of the importance of intellectual property to the U.S. economy.

Our AEI essay responds to these claims by explaining how these IP skeptics both mischaracterize the studies that they are attacking and fail to acknowledge the actual historical and economic evidence on the connections between IP, innovation, and economic prosperity. We recommend that anyone who may be confused by the assertions of any IP skeptics waving the banner of property rights and the free market read our essay at AEI, as well as our previous essays in which we have called out similarly odd statements from Mercatus about IP rights.

The Mercatus report, though, exemplifies many of the concerns we raise about these IP skeptics, and so it deserves to be considered at greater length.

For instance, something we touched on briefly in our AEI essay is the fact that the authors of this Mercatus report offer no empirical evidence of their own within their lengthy critique of several empirical studies, and at best they invoke thin theoretical support for their contentions.

This is odd if only because they are critiquing several empirical studies that develop careful, balanced and rigorous models for testing one of the biggest economic questions in innovation policy: What is the relationship between intellectual property and jobs and economic growth?

Apparently, the authors of the Mercatus report presume that the burden of proof is entirely on the proponents of IP, and that a bit of hand waving using abstract economic concepts and generalized theory is enough to defeat arguments supported by empirical data and plausible methodology.

This move raises a foundational question that frames all debates about IP rights today: On whom should the burden rest? On those who claim that IP has beneficial economic effects? Or on those who claim otherwise, such as the authors of the Mercatus report?

The burden of proof here is an important issue. Too often, recent debates about IP rights have started from an assumption that the entire burden of proof rests on those investigating or defending IP rights. Quite often, IP skeptics appear to believe that their criticism of IP rights needs little empirical or theoretical validation, beyond talismanic invocations of “monopoly” and anachronistic assertions that the Framers of the US Constitution were utilitarians.

As we detail in our AEI essay, though, the problem with arguments like those made in the Mercatus report is that they contradict history and empirics. For the evidence that supports this claim, including citations to the many studies that are ignored by the IP skeptics at Mercatus and elsewhere, check out the essay.

Despite these historical and economic facts, one may still believe that the US would enjoy even greater prosperity without IP. But IP skeptics who believe in this counterfactual world face a challenge. As a preliminary matter, they ought to acknowledge that they are the ones swimming against the tide of history and prevailing belief. More important, the burden of proof is on them – the IP skeptics – to explain why the U.S. has long prospered under an IP system they find so odious and destructive of property rights and economic progress, while countries that largely eschew IP have languished. This obligation is especially heavy for one who seeks to undermine empirical work such as the USPTO Report and other studies.

In sum, you can’t beat something with nothing. For IP skeptics to contest this evidence, they should offer more than polemical and theoretical broadsides. They ought to stop making faux originalist arguments that misstate basic legal facts about property and IP, and instead offer their own empirical evidence. The Mercatus report, however, is content to confine its empirics to critiques of others’ methodology – including claims their targets did not make.

For example, in addition to the several strawman attacks identified in our AEI essay, the Mercatus report constructs another strawman in its discussion of studies of copyright piracy done by Stephen Siwek for the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI). Mercatus inaccurately and unfairly implies that Siwek’s studies on the impact of piracy in film and music assumed that every copy pirated was a sale lost – this is known as “the substitution rate problem.” In fact, Siwek’s methodology tackled that exact problem.

IPI and Siwek never seem to get credit for this, but Siwek was careful to avoid the one-to-one substitution rate estimate that Mercatus and others foist on him and then critique as empirically unsound. If one actually reads his report, it is clear that Siwek assumes that bootleg physical copies resulted in a 65.7% substitution rate, while illegal downloads resulted in a 20% substitution rate. Siwek’s methodology anticipates and renders moot the critique that Mercatus makes anyway.

After mischaracterizing these studies and their claims, the Mercatus report goes further in attacking them as supporting advocacy on behalf of IP rights. Yes, the empirical results have been used by think tanks, trade associations and others to support advocacy on behalf of IP rights. But does that advocacy make the questions asked and resulting research invalid? IP skeptics would have trumpeted results showing that IP-intensive industries had a minimal economic impact, just as Mercatus policy analysts have done with alleged empirical claims about IP in other contexts. In fact, IP skeptics at free-market institutions repeatedly invoke studies in policy advocacy that allegedly show harm from patent litigation, despite these studies suffering from far worse problems than anything alleged in their critiques of the USPTO and other studies.

Finally, we noted in our AEI essay how it was odd to hear a well-known libertarian think tank like Mercatus advocate for more government-funded programs, such as direct grants or prizes, as viable alternatives to individual property rights secured to inventors and creators. There is even more economic work being done beyond the empirical studies we cited in our AEI essay on the critical role that property rights in innovation serve in a flourishing free market, as well as work on the economic benefits of IP rights over other governmental programs like prizes.

Today, we are in the midst of a full-blown moral panic about the alleged evils of IP. It’s alarming that libertarians – the very people who should be defending all property rights – have jumped on this populist bandwagon. Imagine if free market advocates at the turn of the Twentieth Century had asserted that there was no evidence that property rights had contributed to the Industrial Revolution. Imagine them joining in common cause with the populist Progressives to suppress the enforcement of private rights and the enjoyment of economic liberty. It’s a bizarre image, but we are seeing its modern-day equivalent, as these libertarians join the chorus of voices arguing against property and private ordering in markets for innovation and creativity.

It’s also disconcerting that Mercatus appears to abandon its exceptionally high standards for scholarly work-product when it comes to IP rights. Its economic analyses and policy briefs on such subjects as telecommunications regulation, financial and healthcare markets, and the regulatory state have rightly made Mercatus a respected free-market institution. It’s unfortunate that it has lent this justly earned prestige and legitimacy to stale and derivative arguments against property and private ordering in the innovation and creative industries. It’s time to embrace the sound evidence and back off the rhetoric.