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Over the past decade and a half, virtually every branch of the federal government has taken steps to weaken the patent system. As reflected in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order, these restraints on patent enforcement are now being coupled with antitrust policies that, in large part, adopt a “big is bad” approach in place of decades of economically grounded case law and agency guidelines.

This policy bundle is nothing new. It largely replicates the innovation policies pursued during the late New Deal and the postwar decades. That historical experience suggests that a “weak-patent/strong-antitrust” approach is likely to encourage neither innovation nor competition.

The Overlooked Shortfalls of New Deal Innovation Policy

Starting in the early 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sequence of decisions that raised obstacles to patent enforcement. The Franklin Roosevelt administration sought to take this policy a step further, advocating compulsory licensing for all patents. While Congress did not adopt this proposal, it was partially implemented as a de facto matter through antitrust enforcement. Starting in the early 1940s and continuing throughout the postwar decades, the antitrust agencies secured judicial precedents that treated a broad range of licensing practices as per se illegal. Perhaps most dramatically, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) secured more than 100 compulsory licensing orders against some of the nation’s largest companies. 

The rationale behind these policies was straightforward. By compelling access to incumbents’ patented technologies, courts and regulators would lower barriers to entry and competition would intensify. The postwar economy declined to comply with policymakers’ expectations. Implementation of a weak-IP/strong-antitrust innovation policy over the course of four decades yielded the opposite of its intended outcome. 

Market concentration did not diminish, turnover in market leadership was slow, and private research and development (R&D) was confined mostly to the research labs of the largest corporations (who often relied on generous infusions of federal defense funding). These tendencies are illustrated by the dramatically unequal allocation of innovation capital in the postwar economy.  As of the late 1950s, small firms represented approximately 7% of all private U.S. R&D expenditures.  Two decades later, that figure had fallen even further. By the late 1970s, patenting rates had plunged, and entrepreneurship and innovation were in a state of widely lamented decline.

Why Weak IP Raises Entry Costs and Promotes Concentration

The decline in entrepreneurial innovation under a weak-IP regime was not accidental. Rather, this outcome can be derived logically from the economics of information markets.

Without secure IP rights to establish exclusivity, engage securely with business partners, and deter imitators, potential innovator-entrepreneurs had little hope to obtain funding from investors. In contrast, incumbents could fund R&D internally (or with federal funds that flowed mostly to the largest computing, communications, and aerospace firms) and, even under a weak-IP regime, were protected by difficult-to-match production and distribution efficiencies. As a result, R&D mostly took place inside the closed ecosystems maintained by incumbents such as AT&T, IBM, and GE.

Paradoxically, the antitrust campaign against patent “monopolies” most likely raised entry barriers and promoted industry concentration by removing a critical tool that smaller firms might have used to challenge incumbents that could outperform on every competitive parameter except innovation. While the large corporate labs of the postwar era are rightly credited with technological breakthroughs, incumbents such as AT&T were often slow in transforming breakthroughs in basic research into commercially viable products and services for consumers. Without an immediate competitive threat, there was no rush to do so. 

Back to the Future: Innovation Policy in the New New Deal

Policymakers are now at work reassembling almost the exact same policy bundle that ended in the innovation malaise of the 1970s, accompanied by a similar reliance on public R&D funding disbursed through administrative processes. However well-intentioned, these processes are inherently exposed to political distortions that are absent in an innovation environment that relies mostly on private R&D funding governed by price signals. 

This policy bundle has emerged incrementally since approximately the mid-2000s, through a sequence of complementary actions by every branch of the federal government.

  • In 2011, Congress enacted the America Invents Act, which enables any party to challenge the validity of an issued patent through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). Since PTAB’s establishment, large information-technology companies that advocated for the act have been among the leading challengers.
  • In May 2021, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) declared its support for a worldwide suspension of IP protections over Covid-19-related innovations (rather than adopting the more nuanced approach of preserving patent protections and expanding funding to accelerate vaccine distribution).  
  • President Biden’s July 2021 executive order states that “the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce are encouraged to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standard-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” This suggests that the administration has already determined to retract or significantly modify the 2019 joint policy statement in which the DOJ, USPTO, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) had rejected the view that standard-essential patent owners posed a high risk of patent holdup, which would therefore justify special limitations on enforcement and licensing activities.

The history of U.S. technology markets and policies casts great doubt on the wisdom of this weak-IP policy trajectory. The repeated devaluation of IP rights is likely to be a “lose-lose” approach that does little to promote competition, while endangering the incentive and transactional structures that sustain robust innovation ecosystems. A weak-IP regime is particularly likely to disadvantage smaller firms in biotech, medical devices, and certain information-technology segments that rely on patents to secure funding from venture capital and to partner with larger firms that can accelerate progress toward market release. The BioNTech/Pfizer alliance in the production and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine illustrates how patents can enable such partnerships to accelerate market release.  

The innovative contribution of BioNTech is hardly a one-off occurrence. The restoration of robust patent protection in the early 1980s was followed by a sharp increase in the percentage of private R&D expenditures attributable to small firms, which jumped from about 5% as of 1980 to 21% by 1992. This contrasts sharply with the unequal allocation of R&D activities during the postwar period.

Remarkably, the resurgence of small-firm innovation following the strong-IP policy shift, starting in the late 20th century, mimics tendencies observed during the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when U.S. courts provided a hospitable venue for patent enforcement; there were few antitrust constraints on licensing activities; and innovation was often led by small firms in partnership with outside investors. This historical pattern, encompassing more than a century of U.S. technology markets, strongly suggests that strengthening IP rights tends to yield a policy “win-win” that bolsters both innovative and competitive intensity. 

An Alternate Path: ‘Bottom-Up’ Innovation Policy

To be clear, the alternative to the policy bundle of weak-IP/strong antitrust does not consist of a simple reversion to blind enforcement of patents and lax administration of the antitrust laws. A nuanced innovation policy would couple modern antitrust’s commitment to evidence-based enforcement—which, in particular cases, supports vigorous intervention—with a renewed commitment to protecting IP rights for innovator-entrepreneurs. That would promote competition from the “bottom up” by bolstering maverick innovators who are well-positioned to challenge (or sometimes partner with) incumbents and maintaining the self-starting engine of creative disruption that has repeatedly driven entrepreneurial innovation environments. Tellingly, technology incumbents have often been among the leading advocates for limiting patent and copyright protections.  

Advocates of a weak-patent/strong-antitrust policy believe it will enhance competitive and innovative intensity in technology markets. History suggests that this combination is likely to produce the opposite outcome.  

Jonathan M. Barnett is the Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. This post is based on the author’s recent publications, Innovators, Firms, and Markets: The Organizational Logic of Intellectual Property (Oxford University Press 2021) and “The Great Patent Grab,” in Battles Over Patents: History and the Politics of Innovation (eds. Stephen H. Haber and Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Oxford University Press 2021).

[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 Mark Jamison, (Director and Gunter Professor, Public Utility Research Center, University of Florida and Visiting Scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.).]

The economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, and of the government responses to it, are significant and could be staggering, especially for small businesses. Goldman Sachs estimates a potential 24% drop in US GDP for the second quarter of 2020 and a 4% decline for the year. Its small business survey found that a little over half of small businesses might last for less than three months in this economic downturn. Small business employs nearly 60 million people in the US. How many will be out of work this year is anyone’s guess, but the number will be large.

What should small businesses do? First, focus on staying in business because their customers and employees need them to be healthy when the economy begins to recover. That will certainly mean slowing down business activity and decreasing payroll to manage losses, and managing liquidity.

Second, look for opportunities in the present crisis. Consumers are slowing their spending, but they will spend for things they still need and need now. And there will be new demand for things they didn’t need much before, like more transportation of food, support for health needs, and crisis management. Which business sectors will recover first? Those whose downturns represented delayed demand, such as postponed repairs and business travel, rather than evaporated demand, such as luxury items.

Third, they can watch for and take advantage of government support programs. Many programs simply provide low-cost loans, which do not solve the small-business problem of customers not buying: Borrowing money to meet payroll for idle workers simply delays business closure and makes bankruptcy more likely. But some grants and tax breaks are under discussion (see below).

Fourth, they can renegotiate loans and contracts. One of the mistakes lenders made in the past is holding stressed borrowers’ feet to the fire, which only led to more, and more costly loan defaults. At least some lenders have learned. So lenders and some suppliers might be willing to receive some payments rather than none.

What should government do? Unfortunately, Washington seems to think that so-called stimulus spending is the cure for any economic downturn. This isn’t true. I’ll explain why below, but let me first get to what is more productive. 

The major problem is that customers are unable to buy and businesses are unable to produce because of the responses to the coronavirus. Sometimes transactions are impossible, but there are times where buying and selling is simply made more costly by the pandemic and the government responses. So government support for the economy should address these problems directly.

For buyers, government officials should recognize that buying is hard and costly for them. So policies should include improving their abilities to buy during this time. Sales tax holidays, especially on healthcare, food, and transportation would be helpful. 

Waivers of postal fees would make e-commerce cheaper. And temporary support for fixed costs, such as mortgages, would free money for other things. Tax breaks for the gig economy would lower service costs and provide new employment opportunities. And tax credits for durables like home improvements would lower costs of social distancing.

But the better opportunities for government impact are on the business side because small business affects both the supply of services and the incomes of consumers.

For small business policy, my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Glenn Hubbard and Michael Strain have done the most thoughtful work that I have seen. They note that the problems for small businesses are that they do not have enough business activity to meet payroll and other bills. This means that “(t)he goal should be to replace a large portion of the revenue (not just the payroll expenses) those businesses would have generated in the absence of being shut down due to the coronavirus.” 

They suggest policies to replace 80 percent of the small business revenue loss. How? By providing grants in the form of government-backed commercial loans that are forgiven if the business continues and maintains payroll, subject to workers being allowed to quit if they find better opportunities. 

What else might work? Tax breaks that lower business costs. These can be breaks in payroll taxes, marginal income tax rates, equipment purchases, permitting, etc., including tax holidays. Rollback of current business losses would trigger tax refunds that improve businesses finances. 

One of the least useful ideas for small businesses is interest-free loans. These might be great for large businesses who are largely managing their financial positions. But such loans fail to address the basic small business problem of keeping the doors open when customers aren’t buying.

Finally, why doesn’t traditional stimulus work, even in other times of economic downturn? Traditional spending-based stimulus assumes that the economic problem is that people want to build things, but not buy them. That’s not a very good assumption. Especially today, where the problems are the higher cost of buying, or perhaps the impossibility of buying with social distancing, and the higher costs of doing businesses. Keeping businesses in business is the key to supporting the economy.