Patents Don’t Lead to Innovation, People Do

Yesterday, Mike Masnick pointed out a study that looked at innovations that were given Research & Development’s “R&D 100 Award” from 1977 to 2004. The study found that, within certain ground rules, 91% of the prize-winning technologies were not patented. Then, to make things interesting, Dennis Crouch at Patently-O claimed to have found that the first three innovations on the 2004 award list appeared to have been patented, casting doubt on the quality of the study.

To some extent, I think they’re both a little off. But the conclusion doesn’t change: patents don’t lead to innovation.

First, I can’t confirm Dennis’s results. As he did, I chose the first three innovations on the 2004 list, which were:

Technology

Primary Developer

Secondary Developer

PuraMatrix Synthetic Peptide Hydrogels

3DM Inc

MIT

FizCam 1000

4D Technology Corporation

ADVA FSP 2000

ADVA Optical Networking Inc

IBM Corporation

I searched patents and applications with a filing date in the range of 2001 to 2007, as the authors did. I separately searched using inventor names, assignee name, and the name of the invention. Of those first three, I only found that one was patented, although in that case one of the inventor’s names, which is James Millerd, is actually misspelled in the award description as “Kames Millerd.” So I’m afraid I have to cast some doubt on Dennis’s doubt-casting.

That’s not to say that Mike gets off quibble-free. I think he got a little carried away with the study’s headline results. The authors of the study, Roberto Fontana, Alessandro Nuvolari, Hiroshi Shimizu and Andrea Vezzulli, laid out their methodology, and it seems likely that the 91% number is high.

For example, the R&D Awards are given to innovators who apply for the award and there is no prize beyond the award itself. It may be that this skewed the sample towards inventors with a less commercial view of their projects, and therefore they tended to apply for fewer patents. The authors also searched specifically for assignees by name, which is problematic because assignees don’t always record their assignments in time for the name to show up on the face of the patent. And as the authors acknowledged, the date ranges they used might be under-inclusive. So it may be that they simply didn’t find some patents that do exist, as Dennis suggests.

But it’s not the exact number that matters. It’s that this is yet another study suggesting that people are not motivated to innovate by patents. (See, e.g., Tom Nicholas, Did R&D Firms Used to Patent? Evidence from the First Innovation Surveys.)

To continue the theme I started in my last post, this shouldn’t be surprising. Humans are inherently creative and inventive. And research into what motivates people strongly supports the idea that money or other remuneration does not generally spur creativity. (See Daniel Pink’s TED talk for more on this.) As I pointed out, Apple created the iPhone without securing its patents first — it was not patent protection that encouraged the smartphone revolution.

Patents are about commerce and competition, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that so long as the belief persists that patents are responsible for the amazing technological breakthroughs we’ve experienced, it’s impossible to have a conversation about what makes a patent system beneficial or harmful.

Why should we care? From patent trolls to smartphone wars, something is definitely wrong with the current patent system. But the conventional wisdom that patents lead to innovation squeezes out what we should be talking about: what changes do we need to make to the patent system to make it better for business instead of being a drain on the economy?

More on that to come…