“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”As the inequality gap grows, there is an ideological battle unfolding in the West.On the one hand, there are those who think government can fix things. It must do more, tax more, […]
What do 8 of the 10 wealthiest people in the U.S. have in common?Aside from being able to fly in private jets, the common thread is that each of them has made their fortune thanks to a start-up.Let me explain…From tech titans like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison (founders of Microsoft and Oracle, respectively), to […]
In December of last year, I left my career to travel the world for one year.My plan was to visit as many countries as possible on my Star Alliance Around-the-World ticket in the first nine months, then, for the remaining three months, return back to the country that most caught my eye and my curiosity.Nine […]
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
For the last 18 months, we’ve been wrestling with a conundrum: How is it that the U.S. energy industry is unlocking vast new stores of oil and gas… and the U.S. biotech industry is discovering how to turn back our biological clocks… at the same time Washington is setting new debt records and Wall Street […]
“What are you complaining about all the time?” people sometimes ask me. “I’m just about as free as I want to be.”Here’s the problem. How can we really know what we want if we’ve never had it before? The less free we are, the less we know what freedom feels like and how it shapes […]
I’ve noticed a trend with the writings of Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine and the author of a new book on 3-D printing called Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.It goes like this. He comes out with a book, and the highbrow experts say it’s crazy, that this time he has gone too far. […]
Two years ago, I spoke to a gentlemen who had started and sold four companies. He was currently working on a new project that sounded very promising (for all I know, he has already sold that one too). We had just heard a talk in which the speaker told people that the whole key to […]
A contributing factor in the rise of Internet commerce, a feature that gave it a kick-start, was that you didn’t have to pay sales tax on what you purchased out of state. Ah, the glory days of the 2000s, when you could order anything and, for once in your life, not get hammered by the […]
Why is business so often scapegoated for all the problems of society?The term scapegoat comes from the Bible and refers to the goat cast out of the community as part of a purification ritual. Perhaps when people saw that lonely goat walk away and probably into its death, it made them feel better about themselves.Weird, […]
In 1881, Dakota Territory had never sold a bushel of wheat to anybody outside of Dakota. Six years later, it sold 62 million bushels. What happened?I recently read Garet Garrett’s The American Story, which came out in 1955. It is a well-written history of America, unusual because of its emphasis on the powerful economics that […]
For young people facing terrible job prospects and a generally bad economic environment going forward, starting a business sounds very appealing. It has advantages over embedding yourself in a big institution, taking your wages in forms of benefits, and hoping (against hope) to climb the ladder.It’s never been easier to strike out on your own, […]
There’s a jewelry store in town with a long tradition, a devoted client list, and a good record of solid profitability. But during the last year, it’s moved around like the “oldest established permanently floating crap game” from the musical Guys and Dolls.It was downtown. Then it was not. It was reestablished on the other […]
Oh how everyone (of a certain class and income) makes fun of the Twinkie, the ultimate symbol of modern food decadence and phoniness. I don’t get it. Have the critics ever tried one? They are so appealing and delicious: light, spongy, sweet, and creamy, all in a tiny package.The news that the parent company Hostess […]
I was strolling along the wharf in Bodrum, Turkey, and I was intrigued to see some natural sea sponges on a table with a merchant behind the table telling me something about them in Turkish.I vaguely recall seeing an item like this when I was a kid but I long ago dismissed them as some […]
My neighborhood is filling up with political yard signs. Vote for this guy! Vote for that guy!I can’t understand why people are willing to give up precious real estate on their front lawns, make friends mad at them, and put their own credibility on the line to back some politico who will certainly betray them […]
The web is packed with some of the greatest educational material on entrepreneurship and enterprise, material that didn’t exist a decade ago and is now within the mouse-click reach of vast swaths of humanity. Are we taking advantage of it?Doug French and I set out to collect the top 15 videos on entrepreneurship — a […]
It’s fashionable to put down commercial culture, but, when you think about it, this makes no sense. Commerce is the driving force of human progress, in more ways that we often realize. Americans in the 19th century knew this and celebrated this. Our commercial culture was a source of pride and the envy of the […]
What’s great about POM Wonderful? Sure, this pomegranate juice tastes great. POM is one of the few drinks that seems to have the same scrunch-up-your-mouth effect that you get with a bold dry red wine.When I was a kid, it didn’t exist. Like everything wonderful in this world, it comes to us because of the […]
The great recession continues in so many ways but online commerce is booming as never before, increasing in the last quarter of 2011 at the fastest rates in six years.Before you know it, the retail side alone will account for $300 billion in sales per year. We click and pay, and if it’s not a […]
The organization Campaign for Safe Cosmetics doesn’t just want you to be able to have new choices about the makeup or other products you buy. It wants the FDA to be able to ban and recall products. It will decide for you what is and isn’t safe.And it is prevailing against the industry itself, which […]
The functioning of millions of our consumer products has been wrecked by government regulations in ways that are extremely hard to detect and difficult to narrow down. The other day, I wrote about discovering the reason lawn mowers have mysteriously stopped working and stopped improving over the last decade or so. (I now have a […]
I was reading a wonderful set of small biographies of Gilded Age entrepreneurs and took note of something we all know once we think about it. These men and women worked in productive labor from an early age.They universally credit these early work experiments for instilling an ethic to stick to the job, be alert […]
Two years ago, I spoke to a gentlemen who had started and sold four companies. He was currently working on a new project that sounded very promising (for all I know, he has already sold that one too). We had just heard a talk in which the speaker told people that the whole key to business success in our time is patent ownership. Without it, no business can really succeed.
So I asked this gentleman what he thought of the talk. His response was quick (I paraphrase here):
“I’ve never once bothered with patents. They are expensive and pointless. They produce no revenue on their own. They sell no product or service. And they harm development by hemming in a company on a preset track. I need to be able to customize offerings and change what we do day to day. Patents bias a company toward old solutions even when they don’t work anymore.”
That’s an interesting perspective. And it raises the question: How much do patents have to do with innovation in the real world?
As much as we hear about patents, we might suppose there is some sort of direct link between them and the innovations we enjoy in our lives. Someone invents something and shows the plan to a bureaucrat. The exclusive license is issued, and away we go.
Economic historians have usually assumed a direct link between patents and innovation, basing much of their chronicle of history on records at the Patent Office. Much of what we think we know — that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, that the Wright Brothers were first in flight, that Thomas Edison holds the record for inventions because he has the most patents — comes from these records.
But is it true? Most patent holders assume so. They cling to them as a source of life and defend them against all encroachment. Some businesses build up their war chests with patents as purely defensive measures. The more you own, the more you can intimidate your competitors to stay out of your territory.
So how important are patents in generating innovation? The answer is not much, according to four economists from the Technical University of Lisbon. They are circulating their research on a platform sponsored by the St. Louis Federal Reserve. They looked at the best innovations between 1977-2004, as listed by the R&D awards in the journal Research and Development. They matched 3,000 innovations against patent records to establish the relationship.
Their findings are remarkable: Nine in 10 of the innovations were never patented. They were just created and marketed, and changed the world. In other words, it’s the market, not the bureaucracy, that innovates. The authors grant that there might have been downstream versions of the same innovations that were patented. But that fact actually doesn’t change the implications of the study, namely that there is no relationship between the existence of the Patent Office and direction and pace of innovation.
As you dig through their citations, you find other nuggets of information. It turns out that other researchers have found the same thing in early parts of the 20th century and even all the way back to the middle of the 19th. The results keep coming up the same way: There are patents and there are innovations, but they have little or nothing to do with each other.
These results are a classic case of the huge chasm between pop science and real science. In the pop version, people imagine that they will dream up some idea, file a patent, and then bring it into production and become a billionaire. The reality on the ground is that 90% of patents go completely unused. They are suitable for hanging, but not much else.
The patents that are actually in play in this world are used as weapons by big shots to hurt their competitors. They don’t cause business to succeed; it’s the reverse. The bigger the business, the more it is in the market for patents to help the big business hold its place in the market. They prompt lawsuits that go on for years that are eventually settled with an exchange of cash. Meanwhile, rather than actually fueling the innovative process, they put it on hold. So long as a patent is in existence, other innovations are legally bound not to do what they do best.
The software industry is an excellent case in point. In the 1970s and 1980s, patents were rare to nonexistent. Companies made money by making stuff and selling it, just as free enterprise would suggest. Then, the industry grew. People like Steve Jobs who once touted that talent for stealing the ideas of others began threatening other companies with lawsuits. Young programmers today know for a fact that if they ever come up with anything that threatens a big player, the small company is going to be hammered.
Two parallel streams of innovative software strategies have been running over the last 10 years: 1) highly protected and 2) patentless open source. Apple and Microsoft represent the patented style. Google is much more inclined to the open model. Companies like WordPress reveal their code to the world and make money in other ways. A good test case comes from the big smartphone war between Apple’s iOS, on the one hand, and Google’s Android operating system on the other.
The consensus today is that Android is winning hands down in terms of new users. The open-source system is roaring ahead with more than half the smartphone market already and a growing percentage of the tablet market. In terms of moneymaking, the app economy of the iOS is actually doing much better. But consider that it had a huge start, whereas the Android came much later. My own impression from dealing with both is that Android is moving ahead in every area fast.
We need to rethink our assumptions about the role of patents and innovations. If they have nothing to do with each other, and if patents actually dramatically slow down the pace of development, why not get rid of them altogether? That’s exactly what many of the old liberals of the 19th century pushed, and it the case is further bolstered by Stephan Kinsella’s Against Intellectual Property.
Government planning never works. Laissez Faire isn’t perfect, but it provides the best chance for innovations to appear and thrive and for prosperity to result. The lesson for anyone with a business idea: Run with it and don’t wait on a bureaucracy.