A Lack of Invention, or of Imagination?

A Lack of Invention, or of Imagination?

The Chop-Fork

A commonly used argument for the patent system is that without it certain inventions wouldn't exist. Without the financial incentive patents provide, the argument goes, X wouldn't have been developed, where X is anything from Paracetemol to the chopfork. So, we should keep the patent system we have.

I think this argument is faulty. Here's an argument I see as a parallel:

Without the patent system, Einstein would have had no way to eat - he was a Patent clerk after all. So, the special theory of relativity wouldn't have been developed.

There's a couple of reasons this argument (and the one used by patent advocates) doesn't work. The first is that it implies that, if Einstein didn't come up with special relativity, nobody would have. Perhaps the more obvious problem, though, is the premise that if the patent system didn't exist, Einstein would have no way to eat - surely there'd be plenty of companies willing to employ him.

The analogues of these faults in the actual argument go something like:

  • If someone isn't motivated by the patent system to invent something, it doesn't mean that thing won't be invented (at some point, by someone)
  • Even if we didn't have the patent system, that doesn't imply inventors wouldn't be motivated to invent.

Perhaps I'm making the argument into a bit of a strawman. Perhaps the advocate can still claim:

Without the patent system, inventors wouldn't be motivated to invent as quickly/efficiently as they are with patents.

That might be true, but it would require that whatever alternative system of motivating innovation (perhaps the null-system; no incentives) we implement, it couldn't be as good as the current one. That's quite a steep claim to make – I think it's almost certainly false – and it's not easily testable. And notice that this argument contains none of what makes the first one convincing (which is the concrete claims about existing inventions).