Tag Archives: Patent

Jacques Lewiner about Innovation

I had the chance to meet this afternoon Jacques Lewiner, the renowned French professor and entrepreneur, who has contributed a lot in making ESPCI a completely atypical engineering school in the French landscape. This is probably the school that “innovates” the most, especially through its spin-offs.


No need to tell you much about the meeting because all his messages can be found in an excellent interview he gave to the newspaper Le Monde last November entitled “In France, there is a huge potential for innovation.” The article is online (and for a fee – it seems) but there is also a pdf document available, both in French. Allow me then to provide my translation below. His philosophy is simple: encourage and encourage again, with a lot of flexibility; in particular, we must strongly encourage entrepreneurship with Silicon Valley, Boston and Israel as models.

An anecdote before I let you read the interview: he enjoyed reminded me several times that his vision did not make him only friends, as he thought the proximity to the industry and flexibility are essential. But he told me he was the successor of a famous lineage with a similar philosophy: Paul Langevin was a renowned scientist, inventor and author of patents on sonar and… a communist. ESPCI was founded by engineers concerned about the weakness of France and its universities in chemistry after the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870. The Protestant culture of its founders facilitated perhaps closer links between academia and industry. (See History of the Graduate School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry of the City of Paris in French again.)

“In France, there is a huge innovation potential”

For the researcher and entrepreneur Jacques Lewiner, we must fight the idea that research does not support the creation of wealth. Jacques Lewiner is Honorary Scientific Director of ESPCI ParisTech engineering school. This former researcher with “a thousand patents” (taking into account the many countries where patents have been filed) is also the head of the Georges Charpak ESPCI endowment intended to help researchers to put their ideas into practice. He is also the Dean of the valorization at Paris Sciences and Letters (PSL), a new entity bringing together several academic institutions. In addition to his research career, he created or co-founded many companies, including Inventel (Internet box manufacturer) Finsecur (fire safety) Cytoo (cell analysis) and Fluigent (fluid management).

What do you mean by innovation? This is what transforms the knowledge acquired – through study, imagination, research … – into a product, a process, a new service. Among this knowledge, those from the research have a very strong leverage. But innovation does not necessarily give a Nobel Prize. And conversely, intellectually beautiful ideas can be of no industrial interest! For example, I was convinced of the value of the piezoelectric plastic materials for which a voltage appears when distorted. I have filed patents and thought that these devices would be used everywhere. It was more than twenty years ago and it is still not the case. Only a few car seats have been able to detect thanks to them the presence of a passenger … In fact, often, the ingredients of an innovation are already around, but it lacks someone to put them together. When we designed the first Internet box with Eric Carreel, creating Inventel, there was no rocket science. We just had the idea of putting in one device a modem, a router, a firewall, a radio interface… It was also very difficult to convince operators of the interest of such a device but, fortunately for us, Free arrived and opened the market.

You did not always meet with success, as shown in the adventure of the first e-book, available from Cytale who filed for bankruptcy in 2002. What lessons did you learn from these failures? By definition, innovation means taking risks. Nothing is taken for granted. In case of failure, we must analyze the reasons and win an experience that others do not. It is enriching. I also remember very well my first failure. I was convinced to have found new properties of “electrets”, the electricity equivalent of what the magnets are in magnetism. I finally realized that they were already known for over a century. However, they could enable the design of new sensors, especially microphones. I tried to convince large corporations by contacting their research center, and not their business units. It was a mistake. These laboratories had obviously no interest in defending an invention that they had not made! I then had the chance to meet a remarkable entrepreneur, Paul Bouyer, with whom I could create my own business. The future was opened to us, but I did in record time all possible errors. I wanted to do everything myself, without understanding the importance of team work. The adventure lasted a year …

Where is France in terms of innovation? It has a huge potential. People are well trained and research is of quality. The basic culture is in place. But there are too many barriers between scientific discovery and the application that will appeal to the market. Our system blocks initiatives. We must simplify French law and do away with some nonsense.

Which ones? Before the 1999 Allegre law, a researcher could not even get into a board! That changed but nonsense persists. Today, it is very difficult for a researcher to become a consultant, the authorization may be received at the end of a very long time, sometimes a year, and, in addition, it has to be out of its filed of competence! Fortunately, some resourceful people manage to get by, but it is an obstacle for most. A ESPCI ParisTech, to help our researchers, we have created an endowment fund. We make strong efforts to answer within two weeks to a researcher who claims an invention. In some institutions, this response may take from six months to eighteen months! Such a delay is likely to delay the scientific publication of the researcher. One could imagine a rule that states that beyond two months no response means agreement.

Are patents necessary? Yes, they are useful in two ways. On the one hand, they avoid if successful innovation is copied and, secondly, they secure investors at a fundraiser. But patents can sometimes be like mirages. CNRS has long received many patent royalties from Pierre Potier’s antitumor drugs Taxotere and Vinorelbine. But when the public domain, these patents do not bring any revenue. [In 2008, they accounted for 90% of CNRS royalties]. To create wealth from research, we must also encourage the creation of innovative companies. At ESPCI ParisTech, we help in patenting but also in the creation of start-ups, by granting them very favorable terms in exchange for 5% of their capital. It is a model of operation similar to that of Stanford University [in California], which portfolio of ownership in start-ups (like Google) represents more income than from patents. Some universities charge a 10% to 25% ownership in start-ups, and further require the repayment of loans. It is far too greedy and discouraging for researchers. A few years ago, the Ecole Centrale estimated that its start-ups had generated a ten-year cumulative revenue of € 96 million. For ESPCI ParisTech, over the same period, it was 1.4 billion. And for the Technion Institute in Israel, it was 13 billion in 2013. Do not tell me you cannot do the same in France!

Maybe is it a question of culture. Can we change it? One should not oppose research and creation of economic activity. But it is true that in France sometimes persists the idea that researchers should not benefit financially from their work. However, it is not shocking that good research also creates economic wealth. We must create a favorable ground leaving the most possible freedom for researchers. We can also improve the training of researchers and engineers. Stanford University and the Technion are also models here. The former, with its Biodesign Center, promotes the mixing of cultures between physicists, chemists, medical doctors, biologists, computer scientists… As part of their curriculum, students are required to file a patent, or even start a business! At PSL, we have created with this in mind a new curriculum, the Institute of Technology and Innovation, in which research and innovation are mixed.

Many economists are pinning their hopes on the digital world to boost growth. What about you? Of course, the digital world will have its place in the future as it will be used in all activities. Sometimes we assimilate the digital technologies and the Internet start-ups. The latter sometimes have phenomenal success, sometimes ephemeral. Many fail. The area that can benefit directly from the research is the industrial sector, creating jobs and activities. Have we reached the peak of development and innovations? Certainly not. On the contrary, a new world is opening for the next generations at the confluence of chemistry, physics, biology, electronics and information technology. All this will continue to result in improved quality of life. Let’s not put artificial obstacles on this path and therefore be optimistic about the results that will follow.

Interview by David Larousserie
Le Monde, November 23, 2014.

Invention is the Mother of Necessity!

I am reading the remarkable Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.


I did not think initially that I would have anything to extract from it related to entrepreneurship and innovation. And I was wrong. I just read a section about human inventions and innovations, which I liked very much. Here it is.

THF STARTING POINT for our discussion is the common view expressed in the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention.” That is, inventions supposedly arise when a society has an unfulfilled need: some technology is widely recognized to be unsatisfactory or limiting. Would-be inventors, motivated by the prospect of money or fame, perceive the need and try to meet it. Some inventor finally comes up with a solution superior to the existing, unsatisfactory technology. Society adopts the solution if it is compatible with the society’s values and other technologies.
Quite a few inventions do conform to this commonsense view of necessity as invention’s mother. In 1942, in the middle of World War II, the U.S. government set up the Manhattan Project with the explicit goal of inventing the technology required to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could do so. That project succeeded in three years, at a cost of $2 billion (equivalent to over $20 billion today). Other instances are Eli Whitney’s 1794 invention of his cotton gin to replace laborious hand cleaning of cotton grown in the U.S. South, and James Watt’s 1769 invention of his steam engine to solve the problem of pumping water out of British coal mines.
These familiar examples deceive us into assuming that other major inventions were also responses to perceived needs. In fact, many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love of tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind. Once a device had been invented, the inventor then had to find an application for it. Only after it had been in use for a considerable time did consumers come to feel that they “needed” it. Still other devices, invented to serve one purpose, eventually found most of their use for other, unanticipated purposes. It may come as a surprise to learn that these inventions in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor. Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa.
A good example is the history of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included preserving the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear, announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison’s list of priorities. A few years later Edison told his assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few years he changed his mind and did enter business to sell phonographs but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging for a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music.
The motor vehicle is another invention whose uses seem obvious today. However, it was not invented in response to any demand. When Nikolaus Otto built his first gas engine, in 1866, horses had been supplying people’s land transportation needs for nearly 6,000 years, supplemented increasingly by steam-powered railroads for several decades. There was no crisis in the availability of horses, no dissatisfaction with railroads.
Because Otto’s engine was weak, heavy, and seven feet tall, it did not recommend itself over horses. Not until 1885 did engines improve to the point that Gottfried Daimler got around to installing one on a bicycle to create the first motorcycle; he waited until 1896 to build the first truck.
In 1905, motor vehicles were still expensive, unreliable toys for the rich. Public contentment with horses and railroads remained high until World War I, when the military concluded that it really did need trucks. Intensive postwar lobbying by truck manufacturers and armies finally convinced the public of its own needs and enabled trucks to begin to supplant horse-drawn wagons in industrialized countries. Even in the largest American cities, the changeover took 50 years.
Inventors often have to persist at their tinkering for a long time in the absence of public demand, because early models perform too poorly to be useful. The first cameras, typewriters, and television sets were as awful as Otto’s seven-foot-tall gas engine. That makes it difficult for an inventor to foresee whether his or her awful prototype might eventually find a use and thus warrant more time and expense to develop it. Each year, the United States issues about 70,000 patents, only a few of which ultimately reach the stage of commercial production. For each great invention that ultimately found a use, there are countless others that did not. Even inventions that meet the need for which they were initially designed may later prove more valuable at meeting unforeseen needs. While James Watt designed his steam engine to pump water from mines, it soon was supplying power to cotton mills, then (with much greater profit) propelling locomotives and boats.

THUS, THE COMMONSENSE view of invention that served as our starting point reverses the usual roles of invention and need. It also overstates the importance of rare geniuses, such as Watt and Edison. That “heroic theory of invention,” as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted. Inventors thereby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore previous work. From a patent lawyer’s perspective, the ideal invention is one that arises without any precursors, Like Athene springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.
ln reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim “X invented Y.” For instance, we are regularly told, “James Watt invented the steam engine in 1769,” supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a teakettle’s spout. Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years earlier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by the time of Watt’s repair work. Newcomen’s engine, in turn, followed the steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which followed the steam engine that the Frenchman Denis Papin designed (but did not build) around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others. All this is not to deny that Watt greatly improved Newcomen’s engine (by incorporating a separate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder), just as Newcomen had greatly improved Savery’s.
Similar histories can be related for all modern inventions that are adequately documented. The hero customarily credited with the invention followed previous inventors who had had similar aims and had already produced designs, working models, or (as in the case of the Newcomen steam engine) commercially successful models. Edison’s famous “invention” of the incandescent light bulb on the night of October 21, 1879, improved on many other incandescent light bulbs patented by other inventors between 1841 and 1878. Similarly, the Wright brothers’ manned powered airplane was preceded by the manned unpowered gliders of Otto Lilienthal and the unmanned powered airplane of Samuel Langley; Samuel Morse’s telegraph was preceded by those of Joseph Henry, William Cooke, and Charles Wheatstone; and Eli Whitney’s gin for cleaning short-staple (inland) cotton extended gins that had been cleaning long-staple (Sea Island) cotton for thousands of years.
All this is not to deny that Watt, Edison, the Wright brothers, Morse, and Whitney made big improvements and thereby increased or inaugurated commercial success. The form of the invention eventually adopted might have been somewhat different without the recognized inventor’s contribution. But the question for our purposes is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is clear: there has never been any such person. All recognized famous inventors had capable predecessors and successors and made their improvements at a time when society was capable of using their product. As we shall see, the tragedy of the hero who perfected the stamps used for the Phaistos disk was that he or she devised something that the society of the time could not exploit on a large scale.
[Pages 242-245]

So what’s good: monopoly or competition?

Two minor events drive me to write a minor post about monopoly or competition. What’s best? On the one hand, I just read an article about the poor status of the patent landscape and how to improve it. On the other hand, I listened yesterday Peter Thiel – yes, the same Peter Thiel I have so often mentioned already here – in a class he gave at How to Start a Startup? So what’s the link?

Well a patent is a monopoly given by the authorities as an incentive to innovate (just check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patent). But some authors, in particular Boldrin and Levine, claim this is an “unnecessary evil”. I just read again my notes about their Against Intellectual Monopoly and their arguments are strong. In fact, capitalism in general considers competition is good and monopoly is bad.

But Peter Thiel has different views. Just check two slides from his talk below. Peter Thiel, a famous libertarian, claims that start-ups should look for monopolistic positions! What a strange paradox… I honestly do not know who is right! probably, as Boldrin and Levine wrote, “in media stat virtus, et sanitas”.



As I did not find his views about patents in his class, I tried to find something in his recent book, Zero to One. Here is what he says (pages 32-34): “So, a monopoly is good for everyone in the inside, but what about everyone in the outside? Do outsized profits come at the expense of the rest of society? Actually, yes […] and monopolies deserve their bad reputation – but only in a world where nothing changes. […] But the world we live in is dynamic: it’s possible to invent new and better things. Creative monopolies give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Even the government knows this: that’s why one of its departments works hard to create monopolies – by grating patents to new inventions = even though another part hunts them down (by prosecuting antitrust cases). It’s possible to question whether anyone should really be awarded a legally enforceable monopoly simply for having been the first to think of something like a mobile software design, but… […] Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate. […] So why are economists obsessed with competition as an ideal state? It’s a relic of history.”

Maybe all this is BS, and unfortunately, I never read Jean Tirole. “He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2014 for his analysis of market power and regulation of natural monopolies and oligopoly.” He would have much to say about this… maybe you can react and in the mean time, you can listen to Thiel’s full talk (see at the end).

In this talk, Peter Thiel has another interesting description about capturing value creation. “If you have a valuable company two things are true. Number one, that it creates “X” dollars of value for the world. Number two, that you capture “Y” percent of “X.” And the critical thing that I think people always miss in this sort of analysis is that “X” and “Y” are completely independent variables, and so “X” can be very big and “Y” can be very small. “X” can be an intermediate size and if “Y” is reasonably big, you can still have a very big business.” [HL comment: The “you” here may be the inventor or the entrepreneur, or the university at the origin of the idea…]

And then: “The thing that I think people always miss when they think about these things, is that because “X” and “Y” are independent variables, some of these things can be extremely valuable innovations, but the people who invent them, who come up with them, do not get rewarded for this. Certainly if you go back to you need to create X dollars in value and you capture Y percent of X, I would suggest that the history of science has generally been one where Y is zero percent across the board, the scientists never make any money. They’re always deluded into thinking that they live in a just universe that will reward them for their work and for their inventions. This is probably the fundamental delusion that scientists tend to suffer from in our society. Even in technology there are sort of many different areas of technology where there were great innovations that created tremendous value for society, but people did not actually capture much of the value. So I think there is a whole history of science and technology that can be told from the perspective of how much value was actually captured. Certainly there are entire sectors where people didn’t capture anything. You’re the smartest physicist of the twentieth century, you come up with special relativity, you come up with general relativity, you don’t get to be a billionaire, you don’t even get to be a millionaire. It just somehow doesn’t work that way. The railroads were incredibly valuable, they mostly just went bankrupt because there was too much competition. Wright brothers, you fly the first plane, you don’t make any money. So I think there is a structure to these industries that’s very important. I think the thing that’s actually rare are the success cases. So if you really think about the history in this and this two hundred fifty years sweep, why is almost always zero percent, it’s always zero in science, it’s almost always in technology. It’s very rare where people made money. You know in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, the first industrial revolution was the textile mills, you got the steam engine, you sort of automated things. You had these relentless improvements that people improved efficiency of textile factories, of manufacturing generally, at a clip of five to seven percent every year, year after year, decade after decade. You had sixty, seventy years of tremendous improvement from 1780 to 1850. Even in 1850, most of the wealth in Britain was still held by the landed aristocracy and the workers didn’t make that much. The capitalists didn’t make that much either, it was all competed away. There were hundreds of people running textile factories, it was an industry where the structure of the competition prevented people from making any money.”

Please react 🙂

Against Intellectual Monopoly – (final) part 3

Here is my third and final post on Boldrin and Levine’s book. I cover here the final two chapters and the pharma industry (chapter 9) and their conclusions (chapter 10). As lazy as usual, it is mostly some copy-pastes. As a reminder you can find here part 1 and part 2.

The Pharmaceutical Industry

The traditional model predicts that there should be many potential producers of a medicine, that the industry should be dynamically competitive, and therefore highly innovative with newcomers frequently challenging incumbents by means of innovative superior drugs. […] Some people esteem the pharmaceutical industry and some people despise it: there is little middle ground. The pharmaceutical industry is the poster-child of every intellectual monopoly supporter. It is the vivid example that, without the sheltering patents provide inventors with, the outpouring of new wonder drugs we have grown accustomed to would have not materialized, our life expectancies would be a lot shorter, and millions of people would have died of the diseases Big Pharma has instead managed to cure. In the opposite camp, Big Pharma is the scourge of humanity: a club of oligopolistic white men that, by controlling medicine around the globe and refusing to sell drugs at their marginal cost, are letting millions of poor people die. […] This sounds utterly complicated, so let us handle it with care and, for once, play the role of the wise fellows: in media stat virtus, et sanitas. […] How strong is the case for patents in pharmaceuticals? While Big Pharma is not necessarily the monster some depict, the case for patents in pharmaceuticals is a lot weaker than most people think. [Pages 242-243]

The authors make a long and interesting analysis of the history of the chemical industry with France and the UK blocking while Germany and Switzerland could innovate.

[Page 249] Here is how Murmann summarizes the main findings from his historical study of the European synthetic-dye industries during the 1857-1914 period. British and French synthetic dye firms that initially dominated the synthetic dye industry because of their patent positions but later lost their leadership positions are important cases in point. It appears that these firms failed to develop superior capabilities in production, marketing and management precisely because patents initially sheltered them from competition. German and Swiss firms, on the other hand, could not file for patents in their home markets and only those firms that developed superior capabilities survived the competitive home market. When the initial French and British patents expired, the leading German and Swiss firms entered the British and French market, capturing large portions of sales at the expense of the former leaders.

The authors also analyze Italy and India, which did not have until recently strong IP policies. “Interestingly though, we have not been able to find a single independent analyst claiming that the additional amount of pharmaceutical innovation patents may stimulate in the Indian industry, will be substantial and large enough to compensate for the other social costs. More to the point, the positive consequence of patent adoption in countries like India is, according to most analysts, a consequence of beneficial price discrimination. The argument goes as follows: monopoly power allows price discrimination – that is, the selling the same good for a high price to people valuing it a lot (usually people richer than average) and for a low price to people valuing it little (usually people poorer than average). Due to the absence of patent protection, there are very many new drugs that are not marketed in poor countries by their original producer, as the latter is not protected by reliable patents in that country.” [Page 253]

[Another] doubt comes from the following observation: if it were really true that imitating and “pirating” new drugs is that easy, absent patent protection local firms would be already producing and marketing such drugs in the country in question. [Page 254]

Pharma today
A few additional facts : the top 30 firms spend about twice as much in promotion and advertising as they do in R&D; and the top 30 are where private R&D expenditure is carried out, in the industry. Next we note that no more than 1/3 – more likely 1/4 – of new drug approvals are considered by the FDA to have therapeutic benefit over existing treatments, implying that, under the most generous hypotheses, only 25-30% of the total R&D expenditure goes toward new drugs. [Page 255]

Summing up and moving forward, here are the symptoms of the malaise we should investigate further.
– There is innovation, but not as much as one might think there is, given what we spend.
– Pharmaceutical innovation seems to cost a lot and marketing new drugs even more, which makes the final price for consumers very high and increasing.
– Some consumers are hurt more than others, even after the worldwide extension of patent protection. [Page 256]

Where do drugs come from? [Pages 257-260]
Useful new drugs seem to come in a growing percentage from small firms, startups and university laboratories. […]Next there is the not so small detail that most of those university laboratories are actually financed by public money, mostly federal money flowing through the NIH. The pharmaceutical industry is much less essential to medical research than their lobbyists might have you believe. In 1995, […] about $11.5 billion came from the government, with another $3.6 billion of academic research not funded by the feds. Industry spent about $10 billion. However, industry R&D is eligible for a tax credit of about 20%, so the government also picked up about $2 billion of the cost of “industry” research. […] In 2006, total was $57 billion while the NIH budget in the same year (the largest but by no means the only source of public funding for biomedical research) reached $28.5 bn.[…] it is wise to remember that the modern “cocktail” that is used to treat HIV was not invented by a large pharmaceutical company. It was invented by an academic researcher: Dr. David Ho.

It is a fact that, without the strong incentive the prospect of a successful patent induces, those researchers would not be working as hard as they do. That is true, so let us think the issue through once again. We observe that, while the incentive to patent and commercialize their findings should have been increased by the Bayh-Dole act allowing patentability of such research results, there is no evidence whatsoever that, since 1980 when the act was passed, major medical scientific discoveries have been pouring out of American universities’ laboratories.

It therefore remains an open question: did patentability of basic biomedical innovations create an incentive for engaging in more socially valuable research projects and investigations? Which medical and pharmaceutical discoveries are truly fundamental and where do they come from?

Here are the selected fifteen most important medical milestones: Penicillin, x rays, tissue culture, ether (anaesthetic), chlorpromazine, public sanitation, germ theory, evidence based medicine, vaccines, the pill, computers, oral rehydration therapy, DNA structure, monoclonal antibody technology, smoking health risk. How many entries in this list were patented, or were due to some previous patent, or were obtained during a research project motivated by the desire to obtain a patent? Two: chlorpromazine and the pill. […] Now the “list of Top Pharmaceuticals”, these are the current pharmaceutical products selling the most worldwide, and there are 46 of them. Patents had pretty much nothing to do with the development of 20 among the 46 top selling drugs. […] Notice though that of these 26, 4 were discovered completely by chance and then, 2 were discovered in university labs before the Bayh-Dole Act was even conceived. Further, a few were simultaneously discovered by more than one company leading to long and expensive legal battles, however, the details are not relevant to our argument. The bootom line is more than half of the top selling medicines around the world do not owe their existence to pharmaceutical patents.

Rent-seeking and redundancy. [Pages 260-263]
The next question then is, if not in fundamental new medical discoveries, where does all that pharmaceutical R&D money go? […] 54% of FDA-approved drug applications involved drugs that contained active ingredients already in the market. […] 35% were products with new active ingredients, but only a portion of these drugs were judged to have sufficient clinical improvements over existing treatments to be granted priority status. In fact, only 238 out of 1035 drugs approved by the FDA contained new active ingredients and were given priority ratings on the base of their clinical performances. In other words, about 77% of what the FDA approves is “redundant” from the strictly medical point of view. […] Sad but ironically true, me-too or copycat drugs are largely the only available tool capable of inducing some kind of competition in an otherwise monopolized market. ..] The ironic aspect of me-too drugs, obviously, is that they are very expensive because of patent protection, and this cost we have brought upon ourselves for no good reason. […] Insofar as new drugs are replacements for drugs that already exist, they have little or no economic value in a world without patents – yet cost on the order of $800 million to bring to market because the existence of patents forces the producers to “invent something” the USPTO can pretend to be sufficiently different from the original, patented, drug.

Libraries have been written on the obvious connection between marketing and the lack of competition. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception to this rule, and the evidence Professor Sager, and many others, point to has a simple and clear explanation: because of generalized and ever extended patenting, large pharmaceutical companies have grown accustomed to operating like monopolies. Monopolies innovate as little as possible and only when forced to; in general they would rather spend time seeking rents via political protection while trying to sell at a high price their old refurbished products to the powerless consumers, via massive doses of advertising.

The authors finish with an economic analysis of the social cost and benefit of patents and without patents, and propose solution in the final chapter.

Conclusion: The bad, the Good, and the Ugly

Edith Penrose, concluded that “If we did not have a patent system, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge of its economic consequences, to recommend instituting one. But since we have had a patent system for a long time, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge, to recommend abolishing it

But the authors claim: “On the basis of the present knowledge” progressively but effectively abolishing intellectual property protection is the only socially responsible thing to do. […] A realistic view of intellectual monopoly is that it is a disease rather than a cure. It arises not from a principled effort to increase innovation, but from a noxious combination of medieval institutions – guilds, royal licenses, trade restrictions, religious and political censorship – and the rent-seeking behavior of would be monopolists seeking to fatten their purse at the expense of public prosperity. [Pages 277-78]

A myriad of other legal and informal institutions, business practices and professional skills have grown up around them and in symbiosis with them. Consequently, a sudden elimination of intellectual property laws may bring about collateral damages of an intolerable magnitude. Take for example the case of pharmaceuticals. Drugs are not only patented, they are also regulated by the government in a myriad of ways. Under the current system, to achieve FDA approval in the United States requires costly clinical trials – and the results of those trials must be made freely available to competitors. Certainly, abolishing patents and simultaneously requiring firms that conduct expensive clinical trials to make their results freely available to competitors, cannot be a good reform. Here patents can only be sensibly eliminated by simultaneously changing also the process by which the results of clinical trials are obtained, first, and, then, made available to the public and to competitors in particular. [Page 278]

The authors look at many intermediate solutions including deregulation, private contracts, subsidies, social norms but they are clearly convinced (and convincing) that an evolution is needed, even if they are pessimistic:

Where, today, is a software innovator to find safe haven from Microsoft’s lawyers? Where, tomorrow, will be the pharmaceutical companies that will challenge the patents of “big pharma” and produce drugs and vaccines for the millions dying in Africa and elsewhere? Where, today, are courageous publishers, committed to the idea that accumulated knowledge should be widely available, defending the Google Book Search initiative? Nowhere, as far as we can tell, and this is a bad omen for the times to come. The legal and political war between the innovators and the monopolists is a real one, and the innovators may not win as the forces of “Stay the Course” and “Do Nothing” are powerful, and on the rise. [Page 299]

Certainly the basic threat to prosperity and liberty can be resolved through sensible reform. But intellectual property is a cancer. The goal must be not merely to make the cancer more benign, but ultimately to get rid of it entirely. So, while we are skeptical of the idea of immediately and permanently eliminating intellectual monopoly – the long-term goal should be no less than a complete elimination. A phased reduction in the length of terms of both patents and copyrights would be the right place to start. By gradually reducing terms, it becomes possible to make the necessary adjustments – for example to FDA regulations, publishing techniques and practices, software development and distribution methods – while at the same time making a commitment to eventual elimination. [Page 300]

Against Intellectual Monopoly – part 2

I promised a continuation to my post Against Intellectual Monopoly and here it is. The book is really a must-read for anyone interested in innovation. But maybe you want to begin with an direct explanation by the authors. Check the following audio interview.

So, as a follow-on, here are some very interesting elements about:
– Does IP increase innovation?
– Non-compete labor contract clauses inhibit innovation.

This is something I have been particularly sensitive to, as you will see below through past links. But before this, let us follow the book from where I had stopped.

Criticism of the Schumpeterian Theory
“Although originally not a mainstream view in economics, the Schumpeterian view is now close to becoming an orthodoxy in most circles. Schumpeter celebrates monopoly as the ultimate accomplishment of capitalism. He argues that in a world in which intellectual property holders are monopolists, competition is a dynamic process that is implemented via the process of creative destruction. […] How many industries can [one] mention where the mechanism described in the Schumpeterian model has been at work, with innovators frequently supplanting the incumbent monopolist, becoming a monopolist in turn to be ousted shortly after by yet another innovator?” [Pages 189- 190]

About secrecy and disclosure through patents/copyrights
“A common argument in favor of patent law is that in order to get a patent you must reveal the secret of your invention. […] Suppose that each innovation can be kept secret for some period of time, with the actual length varying from innovation to innovation, and that the length of legal patent protection is 20 years. Then the innovator will choose secrecy in those cases where it is possible to keep the secret for longer than 20 years, and choose patent protection in those cases where the secret can be kept only for less than 20 years. In this case, patent protection has a socially damaging effect. Secrets that can be kept for more than 20 years are still kept for the maximum length of time, while those that without patent would have been monopolized for a shorter time, are now monopolized for 20 years. Indeed, it is important to realize that outside the pharmaceutical industry, where the regulatory system effectively forces revelation, trade-secrecy is considerably more important than patent. Repeatedly, in surveys of R&D lab and company managers only 23%-35% indicate that patents are effective as a means of appropriating returns. By way of contrast, 51% argue that trade-secrecy is effective.” [Page 186]

“If instead there is a race for a patent, the incentive is to keep intermediate results secret so as to keep competitors from winning the race. In fact there is much evidence that secrecy and legal monopoly are complementary rather than alternatives. Despite copyright, producers of books, music and movies have aggressively attempted to encrypt their work with Digital Rights Management (DRM).” [Page 187]

Worse, [for Amazon 1-click purchase patent], “as can be seen, the “secret” that is revealed is, if anything, less informative than the simple observation that the purchaser buys something by means of a single click.” [Page 189]

“In the case of copyrightable creations, it can be argued that technological change – computers and the Internet – are greatly lowering the cost of reproduction, and so the conventional model in which ideas trade instantly at zero price is relevant. However, it is cost relative to the amount of competitive rent that matters. If indeed the Internet is reducing competitive rents, bear in mind that the same computer technology is reducing the cost of producing copyrightable creations. Take music, for example. Music editing capabilities that required millions of dollars of studio equipment ten years ago now require an investment in computer equipment of thousands of dollars. And long before the Internet swamps the markets with music and movies, authors will be able to create movies on their home computers with no greater difficulty than writing a book – and entirely without the assistance of actors, cinematographers, and all the other people that contribute to the high cost of movie making. […]Whether price falling to zero implies revenue falling to zero depends on the elasticity of demand, the mathematics of infinity times zero is complicated at times and this is one of them. If, in fact, demand is elastic, then price falling to zero implies (because so many more units are sold) revenue increasing to infinity. [Pages 193-194]

About the global economy
One often finds the argument that the increasingly freer trade, the growth of many Asian economies, and the lowering of transportation costs are creating a dangerous mix for our economic stability. In particular, it is argued, our ideas and products are increasingly being “unrightfully copied”, and this requires some kind of serious intervention by our governments. In other words, globalization is risky for our innovators, and we need to strengthen intellectual property protection and force emerging countries to do the same we do. [Page 194]

There is a […] perhaps more subtle but certainly not less relevant argument. As market size increases, two things happen. More consumers are added for all those ideas you are already producing or you would have produced in any case. Let us call these “good” ideas since they were good enough to be profitable even when the market was small. Also, additional ideas from new guys getting into the game become available. Let us call these “marginal” ideas, since if they had been good ideas they would have been introduced even when the market was small. Now, lowering intellectual property protection decreases the monopoly distortions for all consumers of the “good” ideas. With a larger market, many more consumers benefit from the greater usefulness and availability of all these “good” ideas. Second, lowering intellectual property protection makes it harder for “marginal” ideas to make it into the market. But in a larger market, more of these “marginal” ideas are going to be produced anyway, as there are more consumers to pay for the cost of inventing them. So the bottom line is that as the size of the market increases, by lowering intellectual property protection, you can get a lot more use out of “good” ideas at the cost of not getting quite as many “marginal” ideas as you would have.

“This simple rule of thumb would be that if the size of market grows by 4%, the length of protection should be cut by 1%. […]Unfortunately, in the case of copyright, terms have been moving in the wrong direction; they have grown by a factor of about four, while world GDP has grown by nearly two orders of magnitude. Hence, if the copyright term of 28 years at the beginning of the 20th century was socially optimal, the current term should be about a year, rather than the current term of approximately 100 years!” [Page 196]

And the authors add regularly that only already successful ideas are copied, not all of them, so yes there is less revenue and profit. Again how much is enough…?

Does IP increase innovation? [Chapter 8]
“A number of economic historians, Douglass North and his followers foremost among them, have argued that the great acceleration in innovation and productivity we associate with the Industrial Revolution was caused by the development of ways to protect the right of inventors, allowing them to profit from their innovations. Central among such ways was the attribution of patents to inventors, and their upholding either by Parliament or by the courts. Relative to the very poorly defined contractual rights of pre-seventeen century Europe, plagued by royal and aristocratic abuses of property and contracts, there is no doubt that allowing individuals a temporary but well defined monopoly over the fruits of their inventive effort was a major step forward. Even monopolistic property is much better than a system that allows arbitrary seizure by the rich and powerful. This does not, however, contradict our claim that widespread and ever growing monopolistic rights are not as socially beneficial as well defined competitive property rights.” [Page 209] “The issue, then, is the one we posed at the outset: does monopoly really lead to more innovation, on average, than competition? Theory gives an ambiguous answer, so let us look at evidence, supported by a bit of statistical common sense.” [page 210]

After an interesting analysis of music composition before and after copyrights [pages 211-213], the authors analyze patenting. “A number of scientific studies have attempted to examine whether introducing or strengthening patent protection leads to greater innovation using data from post WWII advanced economies. We have identified twenty three economic studies that have examined this issue empirically. The executive summary: these studies find weak or no evidence that strengthening patent regimes increases innovation; they find evidence that strengthening the patent regime increases … patenting! They also find evidence that, in countries with initially weak IP regimes, strengthening IP increases the flow of foreign investment in sectors where patents are frequently used.” [Page 216]

Innovation may lead to more patenting but more patents and stronger patent protection do not lead to more innovation. [Page 219]

About labor contract clauses: [Pages 224-227]
(Route 128 and Silicon Valley and restrictive “non-compete” labor contract clauses)

Legally preventing workers from spreading the knowledge they acquired in previous occupations is an inefficient way to internalize knowledge spillovers.

In 1965 both Silicon Valley and Route 128 were centers of technology employment of equal importance, and with similar potentials and aspirations for further growth. … By 1990, Silicon Valley exported twice the amount of electronic products as Route 128, a comparison that excludes fields like software and multimedia, in which Silicon Valley’s growth has been strongest.

What explains this radical difference in growth of the two areas? […] The only significant difference between the two areas lay in a small but significant difference between Massachusetts and California labor laws: A postemployment covenant not to compete prevents knowledge spillover of an employer’s proprietary knowledge not, as does trade secret law, by prohibiting its disclosure or use, but by blocking the mechanism by which the spillover occurs: employees leaving to take up employment with a competitor or to form a competing start-up. Massachusetts law is generally representative of the approach taken toward postemployment covenants not to compete by the great majority of states. California law governing covenants not to compete is both unusual and radically different from that of Massachusetts. “every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.

The paradox of Silicon Valley was that competition demanded continuous innovation, which in turn required cooperation among firms. [Quoted from Saxenian. This is as you know one of my favorite topics as you might read from Silicon Valley – more of the same? or The spin-off virtuous circle].

The (not so) famous Wagon Wheel Bar, incarnation of knowledge spillover.

We know that there are good economic reasons why it must be so: competition is the mechanism that breeds innovation, and sustained competitive innovation, paradoxical as that may sound to those that do not understand it, often is best implemented via cooperation among competing firms.

While Route 128 companies spent resources to keep knowledge secret – inhibiting and preventing the growth of the high tech industry – in California this was not possible. And so, Silicon Valley – freed of the milestone of monopolization – grew by leaps and bounds as employees left to start new firms, rejoined old firms and generally spread socially useful knowledge far and wide.

About simultaneous inventions [Pages 229-235]
The authors add interesting examples when simultaneous discoveries were made, including the sad story of tesla vs. Marconi. “So, why did N. Tesla Broadcasting Co. not hold a complete monopoly over radio communications in the U.S. until late in the 1920s? Why did Nikola Tesla die poor while Marconi enriched himself, on his way to a Nobel prize? Because now like then, the game of patenting and intellectual monopoly is not all that democratic and open to the little guys as Ms. Khan’s recent and altogether interesting book would have us to believe. So it is the case that Marconi, supported by the likes of Edison and Carnegie, kept hammering the U.S. Patent Office until, in 1904, they reversed course and gave Marconi a patent for the invention of radio. We read that “The reasons for this have never been fully explained, but the powerful financial backing for Marconi in the United States suggests one possible explanation.”[…] The story of injustice to Nikola Tesla has a tragicomic ending: in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Tesla’s radio patent reversing the earlier decision of the U.S. Patent Office. Of course, Tesla was dead by this time – and indeed that is why he was awarded the patent. The United States Government had been sued by the Marconi Company for use of its patents during the First World War. By awarding the patent to Tesla, they eliminated the claim by Marconi – and faced no similar claim from Tesla, who, being dead, was unable to sue. [Pages 232-33]

For reference Khan, Z. [2005], The Democratization of Invention. Patents and Copyrights in American Development, 1790-1920. Cambridge University Press.

More in part 3, soon…

Against Intellectual Monopoly

Last October I published a post about the article The Case Against Patents by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine. I had mentioned at the end that there was also a book, entitled Against Intellectual Monopoly. I am not finished with it yet but it is so strange, powerful and complex that I will talk about it in two parts. More in a few days…

It’s a very strange book (and the authors have been known for their arguments for a few years now) because it gives arguments against intellectual property (“IP”). They are not always easy to follow. This is a book about economics which sometimes, often (but not always) confirms the intuition that there is something wrong about IP. Yes inventors, innovators, creators need to be able to protect their creation against thieves. Does it mean they should be given a monopoly (patents) or a right to prevent copy of their work (copyright)? This is what the authors try to address. You can now read my comments but I strongly advise you to read the book and its complex and fascinating arguments, even if in the end, you disagree with them! As a provocative statement, they finish their 1st chapter with: “This leads us to our final conclusion: intellectual property is an unnecessary evil”. [Page 12]

One of their strongest arguments is the following: “It is often argued that, especially in the biotechnology and software industries, patents are a good thing for small firms. Without patents, it is argued, small firms would lack any bargaining power and could not even try to challenge the larger incumbents. This argument is fallacious for at least two reasons. First, it does not even consider the most obvious counterfactual: How many new firms would enter and innovate if patents did not exist, that is, if the dominant firms did not prevent entry by holding patents on pretty much everything that is reasonably doable? For one small firm finding an empty niche in the patent forest, how many have been kept out by the fact that everything they wanted to use or produce was already patented but not licensed? Second, people arguing that patents are good for small firms do not realize that, because of the patent system, most small firms in these sectors are forced to set themselves up as one-idea companies, aiming only at being purchased by the big incumbent. In other words, the presence of a patent thicket creates an incentive not to compete with the monopolist, but to simply find something valuable to feed it, via a new patent, at the highest possible price, and then get out of the way.” [Page 82]

The following is nearly as strong: “The incentive to share information is especially strong in the early stages of an industry, when innovation is fast and furious. In these early stages, capacity constraints are binding, so cost reductions of competitors do not lower industry price, as the latter is completely determined by the willingness of consumers to pay for a novel and scarce good. The innovator correctly figures that by sharing his innovation he loses nothing, but may benefit from one of his competitors leapfrogging his technology and lowering his own cost. The economic gains from lowering own cost or improving own product, when capacity constraints are binding, are so large that they easily dwarf the gains from monopoly pricing. It is only when an industry is mature, cost-reducing or quality improving innovations are harder to come around, and productive capacity is no longer a constraint on demand that monopoly profits become relevant. In a nutshell, this is why firms in young, creative, and dynamic industries seldom rely on patents and copyrights, while those belonging to stagnant, inefficient, and obsolete industries desperately lobby for all kinds of intellectual property protections.” [Page 153]

You can stop here! Or read additional extracts below. Or as I advised go to the book…

“The crucial fact, though, is that the following causal sequence never took place, either in the US or anywhere in the world. The legislative branch passed a bill saying “patent protection is extended to inventions carried out in the area X”, where X was a yet un-developed area of economic activity. A few months, years, or even decades after the bill was passed, inventions surged in area X, which quickly turned into a new, innovative and booming industry. In fact, patentability always came after the industry had already emerged and matured on its own terms. A somewhat stronger test, which we owe to a doubtful reader of our work, is the following: can anyone mention even one single case of a new industry emerging due to the protection of existing patent laws? We cannot, and the doubtful reader could not either. Strange coincidence, is it not?” [Page 51]

In Italy, pharmaceutical products and processes were not covered by patents until 1978; the same was true in Switzerland for processes until 1954, and for products until 1977. [Page 52]

The firms were asked whether particular methods were effective in appropriating the gains from an innovation.The table below shows the percentage of firms indicating that the particular technique was effective. The numbers in parentheses are the corresponding figures for the pharmaceutical and medical equipment industries respectively: these are the two industries in which the highest percentage of respondents indicated that patents are effective. [Page 68]


“While patent pools eliminate the ill effects of patents within the pool – they leave the outsiders, well, outside.” [Page 70]

“Later in the book we talk about the Schumpeterian model of “dynamic efficiency” via “creative destruction.” The latter dreams of a continuous flow of innovation due to new entrants overtaking incumbents and becoming monopolists until new innovators quickly take their place. In this theory, new entrants work like mad to innovate, drawn by the enormous monopoly profits they will make. Our simple observation is that, by the same token, monopolists will also work like mad to retain their enormous monopoly profits. There is one small difference between incumbents and outsiders: the formers are bigger, richer, stronger and way better “connected.” David may have won once in the far past, but Goliath tends to win a lot more frequently these days. Hence, IP-inefficiency.” [Page 76]

“We understand that the careful reader will react to this argument by thinking “Well, the AIDS drugs may be cheap to produce now that they have been invented, but their invention did cost a substantial amount of money that drug companies should recover. If they do not sell at a high enough price, they will make losses, and stop doing research to fight AIDS.” This argument is correct, theoretically, but not so tight as a matter of fact. To avoid deviating from the main line of argument in this chapter we simply acknowledge the theoretical relevance of this counter-argument, and postpone a careful discussion until our penultimate chapter, which is about pharmaceutical research. For the time being, two caveats should suffice. The key word in the former statement is “enough”: how much profits amount to “enough profits?” The second caveat is a bit longer as it is concerned with price discrimination, and we examine it next.” [Page 77] There is a full chapter about Pharam, I will probably cover in part 2 of this article.

Jerry Baker, Senior Vice President of Oracle Corporation: “Our engineers and patent counsel have advised me that it may be virtually impossible to develop a complicated software product today without infringing numerous broad existing patents. … As a defensive strategy, Oracle has expended substantial money and effort to protect itself by selectively applying for patents which will present the best opportunities for cross-licensing between Oracle and other companies who may allege patent infringement. If such a claimant is also a software developer and marketer, we would hope to be able to use our pending patent applications to cross-license and leave our business unchanged.” [Page 80]

Roger Smith of IBM: “The IBM patent portfolio gains us the freedom to do what we need to do through cross-licensing—it gives us access to the inventions of others that are key to rapid innovation. Access is far more valuable to IBM than the fees it receives from its 9,000 active patents. There’s no direct calculation of this value, but it’s many times larger than the fee income, perhaps an order of magnitude larger.”[Page 84]

“Notice, in particular, that patenting is found to be a substitute for R&D, leading to a reduction of innovation. In the authors [Bessen and Hunt]’ calculation, innovative activity in the software industry would have been about 15% higher in the absence of patent protection for new software.” [Page 92]

An example of extreme aberration in U.S. Patent 6,025,810: “The present invention takes a transmission of energy, and instead of sending it through normal time and space, it pokes a small hole into another dimension, thus, sending the energy through a place which allows transmission of energy to exceed the speed of light.” [Page 101]

Arguments in favor of IP are known and quoted again by Levine and Boldrin… “In order to motivate research, successful innovators have to be compensated in some manner. The basic problem is that the creation of a new idea or design … is costly… It would be efficient ex post to make the existing discoveries freely available to all producers, but this practice fails to provide the ex ante incentives for further inventions. A tradeoff arises… between restrictions on the use of existing ideas and the rewards to inventive activity.”[Page 176]

More in part 2….

The Case Against Patents

Thanks to colleagues in France with whom I exchange on the French innovation system, I was given the opportunity to know more about Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine.

Their Case Against Patents (full pdf here) is a strange work given its extreme position. I do believe it is worth reading this 25-page document but if you are too in a hurry, here are some excerpts with my comments in italics. I have already mentioned my concerns about IP in Is Intellectual Property out of Breath? or Patents inhibit innovation, let’s delete them! (though I was not the author of this title!) or finally Is there something rotten in the kingdom of VC?. So you see the topic is not new to me.

[Page 1]
There is no empirical evidence that they serve to increase innovation and productivity […] there is strong evidence, instead, that patents have many negative consequences.

[Page 2] There is little doubt that providing a monopoly as a reward for innovation increases the incentive to innovate. There is equally little doubt that granting a monopoly for any reason has the many ill consequences we associate with monopoly power – the most important and overlooked of which is the strong incentive of a government granted monopolist to engage in further political rent-seeking to preserve and expand his monopoly or, for those who do not yet have it, to try obtaining one.

About the Diffusion of Innovation [pages 2-3]
A second widely cited benefit of patent systems – although not so much in the economics literature – is the notion that patents are a substitute for socially costly trade secrecy and improve communication about ideas. […] More to the point, companies typically instruct their engineers developing products to avoid studying existing patents so as to be spared subsequent claims of willful infringement.
This I can confirm with the following answer I got once, when trying to licence IP for firm XXX: “The XXX lawyers advise the XXX employees not to read patent applications or patents from non-employees because that might preclude the XXX employees from future invitations in that area. If you are interested in selling the intellectual property, the only time XXX has ever bought IP is when there was already a start-up trying to market that IP.”

About Pharma [pages 4-5]
Generally the fixed cost of producing software is low – although it is estimated that Apple spent 150 million USD developing the iPhone. This, however, pales in comparison to the cost of developing new medicines – which is estimated to have a present value of closer to 1 billion USD – the same way it does in front of that for developing a new model of automobile, which is in the same range. Interestingly it is also true that – according to both survey and anecdotal evidence – patents play an important role in encouraging innovation in the pharmaceutical industry while playing a minor one in that of cars, insofar as new components and even plants are often developed by consortia or joint-ventures of otherwise fiercely competitive producers marketing different automobile’s brands. The relevance of patents in the pharmaceutical industry is most likely not due to the high fixed costs but rather the fact that disclosure in the case of drugs is more meaningful than in that of cars and most other products [Semiconductor is another good example similar to automobile]. The chemical formula and the efficacy of the cure as established by clinical trials are available to competitors essentially for free and it is the second (a public good, privately produced due to a political choice) that accounts for about 80% of the initial fixed cost. […] Hence various economists, holding differing views about intellectual property, have nevertheless argued that if government intervention is indeed needed in this market a system of prizes would be far superior to the existing system of monopolies.

About IP and Mature Innovations [page 5]
As the industry matures, demand stabilizes and becomes much less elastic; the scope for cost-reducing innovations decreases, the benefits of monopoly power grow and the potential for additional product innovation also shrinks. Typically there is a “shake-out” in which many firms either leave the industry or are bought out. The automobile industry is a classical historical example but the much more recent “bursting” of the dotcom “bubble” is, in fact, one we may recall better and that makes this point even more forcefully. At this stage rent-seeking does become important and patents are widely used to inhibit innovation, prevent entry, and encourage exit.
[Page 11] Nor, apparently, most industrial organization researchers, seem interested in figuring out why patents are either ignored or scarcely used in new and competitive industries while being highly valued and over-used in mature and highly concentrated ones.
[Page 20] In new industries such as biotechnology and software where innovation was thriving in the absence of patents – patents have been introduced. Given this continued extension has there been a substantial increase in innovation in recent years? On the contrary, it is apparent that the recent explosion of patents in the U.S., the E.U. and Japan, has not brought about anything comparable in terms of useful innovations and aggregate productivity.

I add here that neither the microprocesseur, nor the Internet were ever patented; when the internet was finally opened to commercial applications or when the patent on the transistor was licensed to many players in the 50s (which is quite close to putting it in the public domain), then new innovations multiplied.

About Patent Trolls and NPEs (Non Practicing Entities) [page 8]
Despite the fact that patents are mostly used for arms races and that these, in turn, are driven by patent trolls, there are not formal models of the way in which this can inefficiently inhibit entry. In the arms race theory, if all firms get counterbalancing patent portfolios and all innovate, then they would have innovated in the absence of patents – hence patents do not serve to encourage innovation. On the other hand if (like Microsoft or other patent trolls) you do not produce a marketable product you cannot be countersued, and so you can use patents to share the profits without doing the work – hence patents do discourage innovation and are a pure waste from a social standpoint.

The Patent System is Broken, But can it be Fixed? [Pages 9-10]
There is little dispute among economists that a well-designed patent system would serve to encourage innovation. There is dispute among economists about whether the patent system as it exists serves to encourage innovation – but, again, there is little dispute among economists that the patent system as it exists is broken.[…] If a well-designed patent system would serve the intended purpose, why recommend abolishing it? Why not, instead, reform it? To answer the question we need to investigate the political economy of patents: why has the political system resulted in the patent system we have? Our argument is that it cannot be otherwise. […] On the one hand we find the traditional advocacy of ideal patents as designed by a benevolent planner and, on the other hand, the recognition that patent laws are mostly designed by interest groups keen to increase their monopoly rents, not aggregate welfare.

No Incentive for Reform [page 12]
The basic public choice observation recalled earlier implies that there are many players in the patent game but that “consumers” are not among them. On the side of the potential patentees there are individual inventors, corporate inventors and patent trolls who invent nothing but never-the-less fill out patent applications making claims. On the other side is the patent office that issues patents, the patent lawyers who file and litigate patents, and the courts where the litigation takes place. The rules of the game are established – although only in part – by the executive and legislative branches of government, and insofar as the interests of the general public are concerned, it is these players who represent them. Since patenting is a technical subject about which few voters know anything with clarity – and hardly any are likely to have a detailed empirical knowledge of the consequences of patent systems – the interests of voters are not well represented at all, but rather the competing interests of the other players. […]It should be clear, then, that given this set of players and their incentives, the patent game can have only one equilibrium over time, which is the one we have observed. […]At each stage of this process of enlargement the main driving force were the rent-seeking efforts of large, cash rich companies unable to keep up with new and creative competitors. Patent lawyers, patent officials and wannabe patent trolls usually acted as foot soldiers.

Abolishing Patents[page 20]
Abolishing patents may seem “pie-in-the-sky” and there are certainly many interim measures that can be taken to mitigate the damage: properly interpreting obviousness, requiring genuine disclosure of working methods and an independent invention defense against patent infringement are useful and – among economists – relatively uncontroversial measures. But why use a band-aid to staunch a major wound? Economists fought for decades – and ultimately with great success – to abolish trade restrictions. It will not escape the careful reader that patents are very much akin to trade restrictions as they prevent the free entry of competitors in national markets, thereby reducing the growth of productive capacity and slowing down economic growth. The same way that trade restrictions were progressively reduced until reaching (almost complete) abolition, a similar (albeit, hopefully less slow) approach should be adopted to “get rid” of patents. Moreover the nature of patents as time-limited makes it relatively easy to phase them out by phasing in ever shorter patent durations. This conservative approach has also the advantage that if reducing patent terms indeed has a catastrophic effect on innovation the process can easily be reversed.
Patents should be allowed only when monopoly power is justified by evidence about fixed costs and actual lack of appropriability.
The results of federally subsidized research cannot lead to the creation of new private monopolies but should be available to all market participants. This reform would be particularly useful for the pharmaceutical industry.

I have not read (yet) their Against Intellectual Monopoly but I should given the depth of their thought. As they themselves claim, this may all be “pie in the sky”, irrealistic and therefore useless, and I also see the Libertarianism behind all this. But once again, I believe it is worth thinking about it twice, and longer than just reading this long summary.

Is Intellectual Property out of Breath?

Here is my second paper published by Entreprise Romande after the one on the Challenges of Innovation.

Copyrights, patents, trademarks. Never intellectual property (“IP”) has seemed so visible, but would it be a victim of its success? It is indeed becoming an almost exclusive tool of the rich and powerful and even worse, it may be hindering innovation whereas it was supposed to encourage it.

In July 2011, a consortium including Apple, Microsoft, Sony bought 6,000 patents from now deceased Nortel for $ 4.5 billion. In August 2011, Google replied by acquiring patents from Motorola Mobile for $ 12.5 billion. Finally in September 2011, the United States announced a major reform of patent law, the America Invents Act. These three events in a single summer confirm the increasingly dominant position of IP in the business world. Yet I think it is bad news!

New privileges

If a patent application only requires a few hundred dollars and tens of thousands to maintain over 20 years, should a company enter in legal dispute over it, it might cost millions in damages and attorney fees. Any fragile business might be dead long before winning a case or proving its innocence. Woe to the weak! Large companies are not the only ones to have understood: companies specialized in the valuation of IP portfolios (“patent trolls”) have emerged in recent years and these companies have no ambition to sell products or services around their IP. And Europeans should not think that the problem is American only as illustrated by the recent battle between Nokia and Germany’s IPCom.

IP is now a far cry from the original patent and copyright statements made by the revolutions of the late eighteenth century. It was then about ending the monopoly of corporatism and about supporting inventors and creators. Far be it from me to push the disappearance of intellectual property. I only here mention the example of the laser patents whose saga has at least allowed a wonderful book, closer to a thriller than the complex physics from which ir was born, Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty Patent-year War. But I’m not at all convinced that IP could now enable what was possible almost 50 years ago with the laser. And already in the nineteenth century an abolitionist movement had appeared, aware of the limitations of a system that set new privileges.

Hindering innovation

The other debate about IP is best summed up in a recent article in the ParisTech Review: “Are patents hindering back innovation?” The story is old: Boldrin and his coauthors [1] argue that the developments of the steam engine were hindered by patents filed in 1769. Do we know that the microprocessor from Intel was never protected, nor of course the Internet, and it is more or less constrained that Bell Labs granted licenses on the transistor, an event that is perhaps at the origin of Silicon Valley culture: “In the 70s and 80s, many engineers from Fairchild, National and others met over a beer to talk about problems they encountered in the production or sale of semiconductors. The Wagon Wheel Bar was a meeting place where even the fiercest competitors exchanged ideas.” Having recently visited LinkedIn, I’ve heard engineers explain how they solve problems with competitors from Facebook. Discussing with Apple or Google seems much more difficult today.

Intellectual property is not the answer to everything and in its current development, it poses more new problems than it solves. The U.S. patent reform has already attracted much criticism. As for Europe, it seems stuck in its national self-interest as there is no European patent and the lack of patents on software or business models does not give it any advantage. In a globalized and dematerialized world, the IP must protect the creative people, to better enable the dissemination of ideas and techniques. The “open source” software movement as well as recent experiments in the diffusion of artistic works exclusively on the Internet show that new approaches are possible without killing business or innovation. But it seems that the fears of the established players outweigh the passion and creative risk-taking culture.

-[1] Do Patents Encourage or Hinder Innovation? The Case of the Steam Engine. Patent Law Is Highly Controversial. Michele Boldrin, David K. Levine, and Alessandro Nuvolari.
Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-year Patent War. Taylor, Nick (2000). New York: Simon & Schuster
Are patents hindering innovation? Paristech Review, September 2011

PS: When writing this paper, I had not measured yet the impact of the Apple-Samsung litigation

Patents inhibit innovation, let’s delete them!

My first post for 2012 is a translation of an interview I gave to French magazine La Recherche. It was published last December and you can have an electronic version of the French version here or a pdf document by clicking on the cover page below. It is followed by my own translation. Now I should say that I was a little surprised by the title which I had not expected. I was more thinking in something like “start-ups are the forgotten children of innovation!” The title focused on my cautiousness about IP and patents in particular. It is certainly too strong, but that is what titles are made for…

Patents inhibit innovation, let’s delete them!

Innovation is a matter of culture. An admirer of Silicon Valley, which he has known for twenty years, Hervé Lebret calls for Europe to be inspired by the dynamism and creativity of its start-ups. But is it good to take everything in this model?

La Recherche: A report of the Commission of the European Union stresses that the EU is more increasingly lagging behind the U.S. in terms innovation with a comparable level of research [1]. How do you explain that?
Hervé Lebret: The main reason for this innovation gap in Europe is cultural. I was always struck by how much the students are interested in the applications of research in the U. S., while in Europe we think more in terms of knowledge. And then there are the role models of young entrepreneurs who have experienced success. It is striking in Silicon Valley: Bill Gates was 20 when he founded Microsoft, Steve Jobs 21 when he founded Apple, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, 25 when they created Google. They are powerful models to which a young student can identify to.
La Recherche: The same report argues that another reason for the gap is partly related to differences the patent system which would be more complex and more expensive in Europe. What do you think?
HL: I am skeptical about legislation or rules in general as an explanation in the differences. It is in the people’s head that things happen. In the U.S., they want to try; they have no fear of failure. I am not convinced that we are more innovative because we would have more patents. Look at Switzerland, which has the largest number of patents per capita: this country does not create many start-ups. Incentives and policies are only working if there is a favorable cultural terrain.
La Recherche: But aren’t patents the key for an innovative company, whose value often relies on its intellectual property?
HL: Software is not patentable, and this did not prevent Microsoft to be successful. With the risk that you see me as iconoclastic, I think that patents are an obstacle to innovation. I wonder whether we should not remove them, except perhaps in specific areas, such as biotechnology, where a patent corresponds more specifically to a manufacturing process of a molecule.
But in most industrial fields, you need to own thousands of patents to protect the innovation which is commercialized. The maintenance of this portfolio of patents is extremely expensive and that money could be better used in research and development. Whereas in the past the patent favored the inventor, it has become a defensive weapon to protect dominant positions. Look at the war between Apple and Google: the first alleges that the second has developed its operating system Android by violating certain of its patents. This goes against the theory that the traditional patent protection the weak inventor, who can develop an idea during years without fear of being stolen.
Does the weakness of venture capital, which would deprive young innovative companies from the capital needed for their development, explain some of the shortcomings of innovation in Europe?
H.L. Contrary to general belief, there has always been venture capital in Europe, especially in France. This is not a quantitative but qualitative problem: venture capital in Europe is run by people from finance or consulting, not entrepreneurs.
Again, this is a cultural difference. But this is changing. Former entrepreneurs have recently begun to create venture capital funds or to become business angels. In France, I think of Bernard Liautaud, founder of software company Business Objects, or Xavier Niel, founder of Free, the phone operator, who both joined venture capital firms. The founders of Skype have created Atomico, their own funds.
You do not hide your admiration for Silicon Valley. If the secret of its strength is, as you support, cultural, how can we be inspired in Europe?
H.L. We can draw on customs, practices, an important one being cooperation. In Silicon Valley, curiosity is shared. People know that the exchange of ideas is successful, and are not afraid of ideas being robbed. The two Google founders were PhD students in two different laboratories at Stanford University, but they have talked! It is not unusual o talk to your competitor to solve your own problems: in the 1960s, the major industry semiconductor players in California met at the Wagon Wheel bar in Mountain View to discuss their work. In Europe, many laboratories, academic and probably more private, have a culture of secrecy, they fear the exchange.
What do you put in place at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), where you teach, to develop a taste for innovation and entrepreneurship among students?
H.L. I strongly believe in the role of exemplary models. So I organize conferences with successful entrepreneurs who share their experience. This shows students that these are passionate people, who are not afraid to try, even if just one in a thousand will be successful. These models inspire. But inspiration is nothing without resources. Hence the program “Innogrants”: a salary of one year for a young researcher who is released from its research and teaching in order to concentrate on her or his innovative projects. If it works, it is hoped that the private sector will further invest. Fifty Innogrants were awarded in five years. Half of them have led to the creation of companies in life sciences, micro-or nano or information technology. And five of them have found private investors.
It nevertheless remains modest …
H.L. Yes, we must remain humble: all we can do is create a breeding ground for the creation of innovative companies, as we do with Innogrants. In total, in the last fifteen years, EPFL innovators have created about a dozen start-ups per year. Fifteen have raised venture capital, 300 million Euros in total. Four or five have been sold to industry groups, sometimes these were nice exits. Endoart, founded in 1998 at EPFL specialized in the production of remotely controllable medical implants; it has been sold nine years later for 100 million dollars to Allergan! But we feel there is a kind of modesty, self-restraint of European entrepreneurs compared to their American counterparts.
A former researcher at EPFL criticized the leadership of the university of “copy as closely as possible the American university model” [2]. Do you think everything is good in the American model?
H.L. These criticisms focus on science, not on innovation. The competitive standing of researchers, the instability of the statutes is not a good idea in research. It is very important to let the imagination speak. There is a danger to keep people under permanent pressure. But in terms of innovation, the U.S. model works.
You estimate that at most one in a thousand start-ups meets success. Isn’t this a huge waste?
H.L. We should not measure everything in terms of money or performance. What counts is creativity. For me, the Silicon Valley is the new Athens. As Greece, it is a culture: what this region brought in fifty years is fabulous. Digital technologies that were invented forever changed the way we inform, we cultivate and entertain ourselves. This is probably why the death of Steve Jobs, who was an iconic character, had so many repercussions in October. Furthermore, if one thinks in macroeconomic terms, I do not think that the American model is based on waste only. In the U.S., venture capital weighs about twenty billion dollars a year. For twenty years, 400 billion have been invested. And one company, Google, is now worth $200B. Finally, the creation of economic value is similar to the money invested. It is a collective success, even if it is based on thousands of individual failures, which are often very hard humanely.

The entrepreneur should be at the center of innovation policy

Isn’t the $200 billion market capitalization of Google exaggerated when compared to the actual value of the company?
H.L. The world of venture capital has unfortunately become a financial asset like any other. It is no longer a world of former entrepreneurs who pursue their business while investing in those of others. There is too much money, too much speculation in the U.S. venture capital. But I remember that the start-ups appeared before the Nasdaq, the stock market where shares of high technology companies are traded. Silicon Valley began in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of the counter-culture in California. Steve Jobs did not hesitate to say that some of his creativity came from drugs when he was young. The growing role of finance in the economy only started in the 1980s. Originally, the financiers were the patrons of great artists. That said, I think the current trend of large groups limiting their spending in research and development is catastrophic. Shareholders want 15% return and push to cut spending on research. Good start-up can only emerge if there is also good private research.
Do we see a slowing of the technological innovation?
H.L. I am indeed concerned about the lack of success in current innovation: the 1970s were marked by the transistor, the 1980s by the personal computer; the 1990s by the networks. But in the 2000s, I see nothing new. The Web 2.0 is not a technological revolution, it is a consolidation. More generally, biotechnology was rather disappointing; there is no revolution in energy, chemistry. It is not clear that nanotechnologies are really promising technological breakthroughs. I fear that the 2000s did not create start-ups which are equivalent to Intel in the 1960s, Apple, Microsoft or Genentech in the 1970s, Cisco in the 1980s, or Google in the 1990s. There is Facebook, but this company does not rely on high technology innovation. That said, there has always been a general pessimism about the future of innovation, so I hope to be wrong!
You mention companies in information technology or biotechnology. Is this model of start-up transferable to capital-intensive areas, and where there are already major players, such as aerospace, automotive, chemicals?
H.L. The established players are not necessarily the most innovative. Clayton Christensen from Harvard Business School, showed in 1997 that an established company is great at improving existing products [3]. It is innovation by evolution, not revolution. Renault can invent the electric car, but not a new mode of transportation. Besides, the idea of the minivan, which was then copied, did not come from internal R&D at Renault, but from the company Matra, who did not have the same experience in automotive, which made it more creative. It is also for this reason that the big companies, especially pharmaceuticals, outsource their innovation: they prefer to leave the start-up take the risks, and then buy them. Even an old startup such as Cisco replaces the term “research and development” by “acquisition and development”.
Why do you insist so much on start-ups? An academic institution can also license its patents to the industry, or form mixed private / public laboratories…
H.L. The basic problem is towards whom an innovation policy is directed. My belief is that the entrepreneur must be central. This is not what is done in France: the clusters are clusters of established companies, not tools to promote creativity and entrepreneurship. I insist on start-ups because I think they are the forgotten piece of innovation policies. Of course there is innovation in large groups. But I wonder if they can do disruptive innovative. They can set a goal – the flat screen, the smart phone, or, today, the electric car – that will come out in twenty years. But can they do something entirely new, as did Google? Or Genentech, which revolutionized the manufacture of drugs using genetic engineering techniques? I believe that only start-ups are able to do so. Christensen said if you want to make a major innovation, create a branch and place it as far as possible of your research center as the worst enemy of innovation in a company is conservatism. Innovation is the highest in small teams: this is what happens in the start-up.

■■ Interview by Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis

[1] European commission, Innovation Union Competitiveness Report 2011, http://ec.europa.eu/research/innovation-union.
[2] Libero Zuppiroli, La Bulle universitaire. Faut-il poursuivre le rêve américain ? Éditions d’en bas, 2010.
[3] Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Harper’s, 1997.

Hervé Lebret. A graduate of Ecole Polytechnique and Stanford University, with a Ph.D. in electronics, he worked, after a few years as a researcher, as a venture capitalist, in Geneva from 1997 to 2004. Since then he has been teaching management of technology and manages a seed fund at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.

> Hervé Lebret, Start-up. What we may still learn from Silicon Valley Create Space, 2007. www.startup-book.com
> www.oecd.org/sti/scoreboard An oecd study on patents
> http://vpiv.epfl.ch/innogrants The site of the Innogrants at EPFL.

Is there something rotten in the kingdom of VC?

Following my recent post, Is there something rotten in the state of IP, I could not avoid to add this provocative statement despite all my respect for venture capital. When Kleiner Perkins, one of the best West Coast VC (not to say one of the best VC ever), Charles River, one of the best East Coast VC and Index, one of the best European VC co-invest in an IP company (a “Patent Risk Manager”) such as RPX, I thought there had been a major event. And Randy Komisar who is mentioned in my latest post is on the board… Now RPX is filing to go public so as I do usually, here is the cap. table. All these data remain subject to the IPO date and share price which I just had to imagine… You may also be interested to know that the founders of RPX come from Intellectual Ventures…