The libertarian crowd has been at the forefront of the anti-patent crusade. It is important to understand that libertarians are not consistent with classical liberals, such as the founding fathers and Locke. I have been looking for a way to illustrate this. Then I ran across a Wall Street Journal article by Matt Ridley, a darling of the libertarian crowd, which illustrated the differences perfectly. The article ostensibly was about government funding of science. I am sympathetic to the thrust of the article, however, in the second paragraph he states:
“Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically different? Of course not. No fewer than 23 people deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel and Bernard Finn.”
This struck me as a very odd paragraph in an article on government funding of science. Edison was not funded by the government. Mr. Ridley and the people he cites may have never worked in fundamental research or with inventors. This may result in a misunderstanding of the differences between various inventions that lay people group together, which is the case with the paper cited in the article.
Ridley’s sole argument about Edison rests on the idea that other people were working on the problem. Thousands of people have tried to solve Fermat’s last theorem since 1637. Does that mean Andrew Wiles proof in 1994 was inevitable? Alternatively, only Edwin Armstrong worked on and invented FM (frequency modulation). Does that mean FM was not inevitable?
The article does stop there however, it goes on to denigrate the work of almost every great inventor and scientist since the Enlightenment, concluding with the statement:
“Simultaneous discovery and invention mean that both patents and Nobel Prizes are fundamentally unfair things. And indeed, it is rare for a Nobel Prize not to leave in its wake a train of bitterly disappointed individuals with very good cause to be bitterly disappointed.”
Ridley is not just attacking government funding of science, he is contending that discoveries and inventions are equally likely, given a range of researchers. If you take the statement above literally, it means that everyone working in technology and science are robots.
However, Ridley provides no evidence for his position and ignores the large variations in the rate of science advancement and inventions in both time and geography. This is not surprising, as Mr. Ridley did the same thing in his book The Rational Optimist, where he claims that most inventions were never patented, however a simple fact check showed that every invention he mentions is the subject of numerous patents.
The excellent book, The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen, shows that the Industrial Revolution, which was really an explosion in new inventions, was the result of property rights for inventions, i.e., patents, as does my book Source of Economic Growth.
One of the differences between classical liberals and libertarians is that classical liberalism celebrates great people, particularly those who used reason in the areas of science and technology. The Enlightenment was about celebrating the power of reason and rejecting faith and determinism. Thomas Jefferson said the two of the greatest people in the history of the world were Isaac Newton and John Locke.
Perhaps Ridley’s position is not shared by most libertarians. Yet, a recent panel discussion on Reason TV, part of the libertarian magazine Reason, shows Ridley’s position is widely shared. One panelist compared patents to slavery and taxi medallions. Another panelist made Ridley’s point that most inventions were never patented. But, if you eliminated everything in your house that was subject to a patent or made by a process that was once patented, your house would not exist. Most people will quickly understand that all the electronics would be gone, but so would the refrigerator, the electrical power, and even the glass in your windows was subject to patents extending back to Venice.
It would be easy to brand such an anti-intellectual property as arising from jealousy or self-aggrandizement, however, I think that would be a mistake. These libertarians are pushing a version of F. A. Hayek’s cultural evolution. Hayek’s ideas on cultural evolution are based on the impotence of reason. Hayek argues, that the demand for rational, conscious (“political”) control of the concrete particulars of social life is based upon a misunderstanding of the process of cultural evolution and on a hubristic and dangerous overestimation of the capacity of the conscious reasoning intellect.”
Ridley is just applying Hayek’s ideas on cultural evolution to science and technology. He is not the only one; the libertarian/Austrian economist Peter Lewin from University of Texas at Dallas, sadly my alma mater, makes a similar point. He emphasizes that most technical knowledge is tacit knowledge which is something we know but cannot prove or of which we are not conscious. In other places Lewin discusses “social knowledge” which appears to be tacit knowledge we hold collectively. Both Lewin and Hayek are fans of David Hume, who said causation does not exist (or cannot be proved) and induction is invalid or could not be proven valid. For many libertarians the anti-induction, anti-reason David Hume, is a hero.
Classical liberals know that causation exists, that Induction as a methodology, is not only valid, but the source of all knowledge. The most important value to a classical liberal is Reason. They understand that there is no such thing as social knowledge or knowledge of which we are not conscious. Classical liberals understand each person’s mind functions independently and therefore they celebrate great inventors and scientists. They know that without these great people, it is entirely possible that we would still be living in the Dark Ages. One only need look at North Korea, Cuba, or the Middle East to understand that technological progress is not inevitable and is not the result of some determinist spontaneous order.
What is interesting if you look closely at the arguments of Ridley, Hayek, and Lewin is that they are collectivist at an epistemological or cultural level. Their argument against a centralized government appears to be that it distorts this collectivist acquisition of knowledge.
Classical liberals and libertarians both appear to support free markets or capitalism. Beyond this they diverge, especially for the modern beltway libertarians. Classical liberals base their support of capitalism in reason and natural rights, which are discovered by reason. Libertarians base their arguments for free markets based on collective acquisition of knowledge that is disrupted by government interference.
Libertarians often align themselves with Ayn Rand, and claim her as one of their own, however, their ideas are incompatible with Rand’s. Rand herself was highly critical of the creed of Libertarianism, calling them “hippies of the Right.” If Matt Ridley had written Atlas Shrugged, the economy would have hummed along based on spontaneous order and John Galt would not be a genius inventor.
 http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=1513&theme=home&page=3, Hayek on the Role of Reason in Human Affairs, Linda C. Raeder, Palm Beach Atlantic University
Reason Magazine has released a video, entitled How Patent Trolls Kill Innovation. The magazine banner states that they support “Free Minds and Free Markets” but this video relies on the same irrational, emotion driven logic as the media. I cannot point out all the errors in this video, but below I will highlight some of the major points. Before I do that , let me show some of the sleazy attempts by Reason Magazine to use emotion and hidden assumptions to advance their argument, instead of reason and logic.
Emotion and Faith
*The video starts with the hidden assumption that patents are not property rights – faith not reason.
*The video uses the phrase “patent trolls” to immediately define who is right or wrong without actually proving their case – an emotional appeal.
*The video selects a small entrepreneur to narrate their story – using the typical liberal tactic of pretending this is a fight between a small virtuous entity against a big faceless entity. The reality is that so-called “Trolls” sue large entities much more often than small businesses. Emotional appeal, not reason.
*The video uses an “expert”, Julie Samuels, from a biased source, (Mark Cuban’s lobby group) who has no qualifications in the subject. She has a degree in Journalism and Law, which means she is NOT A PATENT ATTORNEY and does not have the technical skills to understand the underlying technology of patents. Faith not reason.
The video never asks if Austin Meyer did a patent search and clearance opinion before building and selling his software. You would not build a house without doing a title search to make sure you owned the land. Given Mr. Meyer’s surprise that he was being sued for patent infringement, he almost certainly did not undertake this simple due diligence step.
Using Other Peoples’ Property
Mr. Meyer complains that he may have to pay the patent holder for the life of his product. Yes, that is what happens when you use someone else’s property. This is like a steel manufacturer complaining that they have to continue to pay for coal or pay rent for a building they do not own.
Note that the underlying technology is critical to Mr. Meyer getting paid, but he doesn’t want to pay for it.
The anti-patent crowd always complains that these suits are brought in East Texas. If someone refused to pay you rent for staying in your house, would you chose the slowest court in the country or a faster court? Federal Court for the Eastern district of Texas has been one of the fastese to bring invention squatters to justice.
The video makes the implicit assumption that non-practicing entities (NPE) are evil. However, Edison was a NPE, as was Tesla, as was almost every great inventor in the last 200 years, as our most major corporations, as most of our Universities and Government labs. Our Founders looked at the issue of requiring inventors to practice their invention in order to keep their patent and rejected it. They voted for a FREE MARKET system where people could be independent inventors, just like writers do not have to be publishers in order to obtain or keep their copyrights. This is consistent with Adam Smith’s division of labor theory.
The video takes the stand that if you buy the patent rights instead of being the inventor,this is somehow evil. First, all corporations buy their patents – often by paying wages. Corporation don’t invent so they have to buy their patents. Second, we do not argue just because you didn’t build your house you cannot rent it out .
Mr. Meyer states in the video that the technology he wants to use is old, from the 80s. If this were true, Mr. Meyer would be free to use it. But, instead, he wants the updated version of the technology that ensures he gets paid, he just doesn’t want to pay for it.
The Patent Should Not Have Issued
Neither Mr. Meyer nor the so called expert, Julie Samuels, are patent attorneys. They are NOT QUALIFIED to evaluate the scope of the claims of a patent. It is interesting how lay people (I include attorneys who are not patent attorneys in this definition) believe they can just read a patent and evaluate it, but they would never try to do the same thing with a Warranty Clause in a contract or an Indemnity Clause. No one would believe a Journalism major or an attorney (non-technical) is qualified to comment on software technology; but somehow they are qualified to comment on patents on software? This is like asking a plumber to comment on the design of a Nuclear Power Plant.
Patents and the Free Market
Patents are property rights, just like a property right in a farm. The basis for all property rights is creation. Inventions are clearly creations. Property rights are part of the free market. Those countries that are the freest economically have the strongest patents laws, are the most innovative, and have the highest standards of living. REASON MAGAZINE is pushing a point of view that is much more consistent with a Marxist’s labor theory of value than Capitalism.
REASON MAGAZINE is neither promoting REASON or FREE MARKETS in posting this video.
In a replay of President Obama’s famous “You didn’t build that”, speech Google is arguing that if the collective adopts a technology then it becomes part of the public domain. Google’s present attack is against Apple who is asserting that Google’s Andriod phones have violated a number of Apple’s patents. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary committee, Kent Walker, head legal council for Google explained their theory as
While collaborative [Standards Setting Organizations (SSOs)] play an important part in the overall standard setting system, and are particularly prominent in industries such as telecommunications, they are not the only source of standards. Indeed, many of the same interoperability benefits that the FTC and others have touted in the SSO context also occur when one firm publishes information about an otherwise proprietary standard and other firms then independently decide (whether by choice or of necessity) to make complementary investments to support that standard in their products. … Because proprietary or de facto standards can have just as important effects on consumer welfare, the Committee’s concern regarding the abuse of SEPs should encompass them as well.
The quick translation of what Google is arguing is that the patents of Apple (or whoever else gets in their way) are invalid if Google decides to adopt these technologies. Of course, Google is not doing this for its own benefit, Nooo this is in the interest of “consumer welfare.” Perhaps we should confiscate Google’s profits in the interest of consumer welfare – the consumer would be better off if Google’s profits were distributed to all its consumers.
Google’s argument comes straight out of Atlas Shrugged. Rearden Metal was too valuable for one company to own, so for the welfare of the people every steel company was given the right to make Rearden Metal.
Ayn Rand said patents were the laws recognition of the source of man’s creative ability – his mind. She also felt that patents or the debates surrounding them were like a Canary in a coal mine, they indicate the intellectual and moral direction of a country. She complained that the so called defenders of the free market often did not even understand the nature of the debate, particularly when it came to patents. We can see this in the Von Mises Institute’s, CATO Institute’s and Reason Magazine’s attack on patents.
Other terrifying indicators of where we are headed include:
Myriad Genetics Patent Case: The ACLU has argued that breast cancer patients’ needs for Myriad’s technology trumps Myriad’s property rights in the technology.
America Invents Act: This bill was riddled with special interest give aways to Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies, and foreign inventors over US inventors
Mayo v. Prometheus Supreme Court Decision: Where Justice Beyer rules that only black magic is patent eligible .
News: Patent are portrayed as monopolies; Demanding that you get paid for someone using your inventions, gets you labeled a patent troll; the constant drumbeat that the Patent Office hands out bad patents – without any supporting evidence, by people who do not understand how to read the claims of a patent.
There is a moral decay going on in the United States and the World, but it has nothing to do with a lack of devotion to Christianity. It is an attack on the reason, logic, and the mind and in the law that means attacking patents and intellectual property.
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