May 30, 2008 1:29PM

Patent Failure

This week I’m filling in for libertarian blogger Megan McArdle at the Atlantic. Yesterday I finished a three part discussion of Patent Failure, an excellent new book on the patent system by James Besson and Michael Meurer.

The use of the phrase “intellectual property” to describe patents and copyrights has become so commonplace that we barely give it a second thought. I think that’s unfortunate, because the question of whether patents can sensibly be considered a kind of property is an empirical question, not merely a matter of semantics or tradition.

In my first post, I discuss the key characteristics of a patents system — clear boundaries and positive incentives for innovation, and argue that the patent system tends to fulfill those characteristics with respect to the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. In my second post, I shift my attention to the rest of the patent system, and show evidence from Bessen and Meurer that the patent system seems to be creating dis-incentives for innovation in industries other than chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Finally, in my third post, I suggest that the problem is a lack of clear boundaries, and discuss some of the reform proposals Bessen and Meurer offer to fix the patent system’s problems.

The best thing about the book, from my perspective, is that it takes the idea of patents as property seriously and then tries to bring some empirical evidence to bear on whether the patent system behaves the way we expect a property rights system to behave. Because of the analytical clarity of their approach, it gives us a meaningful yardstick with which to judge potential reforms.