Why Hayek Would Have Hated Software Patents

In his famous essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Friedrich Hayek argued that the socialists of his day falsely assumed that knowledge about economy could be taken as “given” to central planners. In reality, information about the economy—about what products are needed and where the necessary resources can be found—is dispersed among a society’s population. Economic policies that implicitly depend on omniscient decision-makers are doomed to failure, because the decision-makers won’t have the information they need to make good decisions.

In a new paper to be published by the NYU Annual Survey of American Law, Christina Mulligan (who drafted a recent amicus brief for Cato) and I argue that the contemporary patent debate suffers from a similar blind spot. A patent is a demand that the world refrain from using a particular machine or process. To comply with this demand, third parties need an efficient way to discover which patents they are in danger of infringing. Yet we show that for some industries, including software, the costs of discovering which patents one is in danger of infringing are astronomical. As a consequence, most software firms don’t even try to avoid infringing peoples’ patents.

Patents are often described as “intellectual property,” and patent law provides for harsh property-like remedies against patent infringers. But a property system that is so convoluted that ordinary firms can’t figure out who owns what isn’t a property system at all. Genuine property rights enhance economic efficiency by bringing predictability to the allocation of scarce resources and thereby promoting decentralized decision-making. Software patents retard economic efficiency by subjecting software firms to a constant and unavoidable threat of litigation for accidentally infringing the patent rights of others. Hayek would not have approved.

Our paper is available from SSRN.