How Strong Patents Make Wealthy Nations

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) blog.

By Devlin Hartline & Kevin Madigan

How did the world’s wealthiest nations grow rich? The answer, according to Professor Stephen Haber of Stanford University, is that “they had well-developed systems of private property.” In Patents and the Wealth of Nations, forthcoming this summer in the CPIP Conference issue of the George Mason Law Review, Haber explains the connection: Property rights beget trade, trade begets specialization, specialization begets productivity, and productivity begets wealth. Without a foundation of strong property rights, economic development suffers. But does the same hold true for intellectual property, particularly patents? Referencing economic history and econometric analysis, Haber shows that strong patents do indeed make wealthy nations.

Before diving into the history and analysis, Haber tackles the common misconception that patents are different than other types of property because they are monopolies: “It is not, as some IP critics maintain, a grant of monopoly. Rather, it is a temporary property right to something that did not exist before that can be sold, licensed, or traded.” The simple reason for this, Haber notes, is that a patent grants a monopoly only if there are truly no substitutes, but this is almost never the case. Usually, there are many substitutes and the patent owner has no market power. And the “fact that patents are property rights means that they can serve as the basis for the web of contracts that permits individuals and firms to specialize in what they do best.”

Turning back to his claim that strong patents make wealthy nations, Haber presents data showing the relationship between the strength of enforceable patent rights and the level of economic development across several different countries. The results are remarkably clear: “there are no wealthy countries with weak patent rights, and there are no poor countries with strong patent rights.” The following figure shows how GDP per capita increases as patent rights get stronger:

Haber - Figure 1

Of course, while it’s clear that patent strength and GDP per capita are related, it’s possible that the causality runs the other way. That is, how do we know that an increase in GDP per capita doesn’t foster an environment where patents tend to be stronger? This is where the evidence from economic historians and econometric analysts comes into play. Exploring what economic history has to tell us about the impact of patent laws on innovation, Haber asks whether the Industrial Revolution was bolstered by the British patent system and whether the United States emerged as a high-income industrial economy because of the U.S. patent system.

To the first question, Haber notes that the consensus among historians is that “from at least the latter half of the 18th century, the patent system promoted the inventive activity associated with the Industrial Revolution.” He then cites the recent book by Sean Bottomley that carefully shows how “many of the changes to Britain’s patent laws and their enforcement—the requirement for detailed specifications, patents conceived as property rights, the emergence of patent agents—all preceded, rather than followed, the onset of industrialization.” Haber also cites a research paper by Petra Moser, which finds that countries in the nineteenth century with weak patent systems trailed both Britain and the United States in technological development.

Moving to the United States, Haber notes that three generations of economic historians have agreed that just after it gained independence, the country’s strong patent system played a pivotal role in fomenting the remarkable industrial developments that soon followed. After pointing out that the United States was the first country to call for a patent system in its Constitution, Haber compares the GDP per capita for the United States, Britain, and Brazil from 1700 to 1913. The following figure shows just how quickly the agrarian American colonies caught up with, and ultimately surpassed, Britain in GDP per capita, while the GDP per capita of Brazil, a country that became independent at about the same time but had no patent system, stagnated:

Haber - Figure 2

As the figure shows, the GDP per capita in the United States and Brazil were less than half that of Britain in 1700, and by 1913, the United States had overtaken Britain as both countries left Brazil far behind. Noting that “there is uniformity of views among economic historians that the U.S. patent system played a large role” in this success, Haber provides specifics examples of improvements upon the British patent system that contributed to it, including broad access to property rights in technology through low fees and a routine and impersonal application process under the Patent Act of 1790. He goes on to highlight the importance of major reforms to the U.S. patent system introduced in the Patent Act of 1836, including the examination process that “reduced concerns third parties might have had about a patent’s novelty, thereby facilitating the evolution of a market for patented technologies.”

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the development of an active market for inventions in the United States, leading to the emergence of a class of specialized and independent inventors as well as patent brokers, patent agents, and patent attorneys, who would connect the inventors with manufacturers looking to buy or license new technologies. While some of these intermediaries were derided, much like the “patent trolls” of the twenty-first century, as “patent sharks,” Haber contends that this market for inventions played a critical role in the emergence of new industrial technologies and centers: “[O]ne would be hard pressed to make the case that patents in the nineteenth century, or the intermediaries who represented their inventors, did anything but facilitate the rapid development of American manufacturing.”

Haber then shifts his focus to econometric analysis, examining the different ways that economic scholars research the relationship between patent rights and economic progress in different countries over a period of time. He stresses that accurate econometric estimation of causal relationships is a relatively young area of inquiry requiring considerable care. He uses the example of a widely-cited study by Josh Lerner, which looks at “whether the strengthening of patents affects the rate of change of innovation in an economy within a two-year window after a patent reform.” Haber points out that many changes neither begin nor end so quickly. With laser technology, for example, “follow-on innovations” have developed “over decades, not two-year windows,” and Lerner’s study thus discounts much innovation.

Looking at studies that utilize a “very long time dimension,” Haber cites one finding that “there is a significant positive effect of patent laws on innovation rates” and another finding that “patent intensive industries in countries that improve the strength of patents experience faster growth in value added than less patent intensive industries in those same countries.” Haber praises a recent study by Jihong Zhang, Ding Du, and Walter G. Park, who “not only find that there is a positive relationship between the strength of enforceable patent rights and innovation in developed economies, but that that relationship holds for underdeveloped economies as well.”

In sum, Haber states that “there is a critical mass of multi-country studies” that leads to two conclusions:

First, there is a causal relationship between the strength of patent rights and innovation. Second, this relationship is non-linear: there are threshold effects such that stronger patent rights positively impact innovation once a society has already reached some critical level of economic development. The reason for the non-linearity probably resides in the fact that innovation is not just a product of the strength of patent rights, but of other features of societies, which are necessary complements, that tend to be absent at low levels of economic development.

Finally, Haber looks at whether the innovation landscape of the twenty-first century is somehow so different that the lessons from economic history and econometric analysis no longer apply. In particular, he questions whether the emergence of patent licensing firms, sometimes called “patent assertion entities” or “PAEs,” and the alleged strategic behavior of “patent holdup” with standard-essential patents (SEPs) are really new features of the U.S. patent system that might hinder innovation. Haber concludes that the evidence shows that neither PAEs nor patent holdup is hindering innovation. In fact, there’s little reason to think that patent holdup even exists.

Haber takes on the recent study by James Bessen and Michael Meurer, which claims that PAEs are a new phenomenon that “constitute a direct tax on innovation” to the tune of “$29 billion per year.” This claim has been rebutted, Haber notes, by scholars such as B. Zorina Khan, whose recent study shows that many great inventors of the nineteenth century were themselves PAEs. Haber further cites the recent paper by David L. Schwartz and Jay P. Kesan that carefully demonstrates fundamental problems with Bessen and Meurer’s methodology, including selection bias, the conflation of “costs” with “transfers,” the lack of a benchmark for comparison, and the failure to even consider the benefits of PAE activity.

Turning to patent holdup, Haber points out that products have long been comprised of numerous patented innovations, and he cites a recent paper by Adam Mossoff showing that there’s nothing “new about firms whose sole source of revenue comes from the licensing of essential patents.” As to evidence that innovation is hindered by patent holdup, Haber notes that the “theoretical literature” says it’s possible, but the “evidence in support of this theory, however, is largely anecdotal.” Haber then cites his recent study with Alexander Galetovic and Ross Levine, which looks at the “extensive economics literature on the measurement of productivity growth” and shows that “SEP holders” are not able “to negotiate excessive royalty payments” as predicted by the patent holdup theory.

In conclusion, Haber acknowledges that while “no single piece of evidence” should “be viewed as dispositive,” it’s certainly quite “telling that the weight of evidence from two very different bodies of scholarship, employing very different approaches to evidence—one based on mastering the facts of history, the other based on statistical modeling—yield the same answer: there is a causal relationship between strong patents and innovation.” Haber then challenges the naysayers to make their case: “Evidence and reason therefore suggest that the burden of proof falls on those who claim that patents frustrate innovation.” Given the copious evidence showing that strong patents make wealthy nations, the IP critics have their work cut out for them.

Capitol Records v. Vimeo: Courts Should Stop Coddling Bad Actors in Copyright Cases

Here’s a brief excerpt of my new post that was published on IPWatchdog.

Here’s where we are after Capitol Records v. Vimeo: A service provider can encourage its users to infringe on a massive scale, and so long as the infringement it encourages isn’t the specific infringement it gets sued for, it wins on the safe harbor defense at summary judgment. This is so even if there’s copious evidence that its employees viewed and interacted with the specific infringing material at issue. No jury will ever get to weigh all of the evidence and decide whether the infringement is obvious. At the same time, any proactive steps taken by the service provider will potentially open it up to liability for having actual knowledge, so the incentive is to do as little as possible to proactively “detect and deal” with piracy. This is not at all what Congress intended. It lets bad faith service providers trample the rights of copyright owners with impunity.

To read the rest of this post, please visit IPWatchdog.

IP Scholars to FCC: It’s Not About “The Box”

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) blog.

This past April, we joined other IP scholars in explaining how the FCC’s proposed set-top box rules would undermine the property rights of creators and copyright owners. In reply comments filed last month, the EFF and a group of IP academics argued that the proposed rules would not implicate any copyright owners’ exclusive rights. Yesterday, we filed an ex parte letter with the Commissioners pointing out why this is wrong. The full letter is copied below.


Dear Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Clyburn, Rosenworcel, Pai and O’Rielly:

On April 22, 2016, the undersigned intellectual property law scholars submitted comments to the FCC in response to the notice of proposed rulemaking in the matter of “Expanding Consumers’ Video Navigation Choices; Commercial Availability of Navigation Devices.” Our comments expressed concerns with the proposed rules’ harmful impact on the property rights of creators and copyright owners. Specifically, we warned that the Commission’s proposed rules would undermine the exclusive property rights guaranteed to copyright owners under the Copyright Act by severely limiting their ability to determine whom to license their property rights to and on what terms. In so doing, the proposed rules risk fundamentally disrupting the vibrant creative ecosystem that those property rights support.

Together with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), another group of intellectual property law academics submitted reply comments framed as a rebuttal to the many comments that dutifully explained how the Commission’s proposed rules would violate copyright law and imperil the property rights of creators and copyright owners. The EFF/professors offer “observations” on copyright law and conclude that “the proposed rules are consistent with copyright in both letter and spirit.” To reach this conclusion, the EFF/professors broadly defend navigational devices, arguing that “products and services that touch copyrighted works do not infringe copyright, and do not require a license,” and that the “devices and services under the proposed rules” would be non-infringing just like televisions and VCRs.

Surprisingly, despite claiming that the proposed rules are consistent with copyright law, the EFF/professors fail to address the primary copyright concern raised by us and by many other commenters. By focusing on the navigational devices themselves, rather than on how creative works are delivered to those devices, the EFF/professors perform a sleight of hand that masks the real problem. The issue is not what consumers do with the creative works they receive in the privacy of their own homes—the issue is how those creative works are delivered to consumers’ homes in the first place.

The creative works that pay-TV consumers watch on their televisions come from multiple sources, including satellite, cable, and telephony-based transmissions. These transmissions are public performances or public distributions, and as a result, they must be licensed. Ignoring this simple principle of copyright law, the Commission would require pay-TV providers to send copyrighted works to third parties even if doing so exceeds the scope of pay-TV providers’ licenses with copyright owners. By forcing pay-TV providers to exceed the scope of their licenses, the proposed rules would undermine the property rights of creators and copyright owners, effectively creating a zero-rate compulsory license to the benefit of third parties that have no contractual relationship with either copyright owners or pay-TV providers that copyright owners license their works to. Furthermore, the Commission seeks to create this zero-rate compulsory license despite lacking any authority to do so; the Communications Act certainly does not give the Commission authority to amend the Copyright Act and create a new compulsory license for copyrighted works.

The reply comments of the EFF/professors do not address this concern at all. Committing the bulk of their reply to a broad discussion articulating their principles for copyright law, the EFF/professors fail to respond to the distinct copyright issues that inevitably result from this newly-created compulsory license. It is unclear why the EFF/professors do not address this issue, as it was echoed again and again in the comments to which they purport to respond. Because the proposed rules would brazenly undercut copyright owners’ property rights, we believe it is important to call attention to the inability of the EFF/professors to even mention this fundamental problem in their response.

Put simply, the proposed rules would take away the ability of creators and copyright owners to license their works on their own terms. It would give third parties all of the benefits afforded to pay-TV providers by their agreements with copyright owners without the burdens of paying a license or agreeing to the underlying contract terms. This isn’t about “the box,” and it isn’t about what consumers do with the creative works they receive in their homes. The issue is what goes into “the box,” and more importantly, how it gets there. That the EFF/professors ignore this primary issue speaks volumes. The fact that third parties currently need a license from copyright owners to do the very things the proposed rules would countenance demonstrates that the rules would undermine the property rights of creators and copyright owners.

The EFF/professors properly note that the “ultimate goal” of copyright is to benefit the public good. What they fail to understand is that by securing to artists and creators property rights in the fruits of their labors, copyright serves the interests of creators and the public alike, fulfilling its constitutional purpose and forming the bedrock of our creative economy. We urge the Commission to consider and address—as the EFF/professors do not—how the proposed rules inappropriately interfere with the property rights of creators and copyright owners and the damage they stand to cause to our diverse and vibrant creative marketplace.

To download our letter to the FCC, please click here.

Copyright Policy Should Be Based On Facts, Not Rhetoric

Kevin Madigan and I have a post that was published at IPWatchdog. Here’s a brief excerpt:

After nearly twenty years with the DMCA, the Copyright Office has launched a new study to examine the impact and effectiveness of this system, and voices on both sides of the debate have filed comments expressing their views. For the most part, frustrated copyright owners report that the DMCA has not successfully stemmed the tide of online infringement, which is completely unsurprising to anyone who spends a few minutes online searching for copyrighted works. Unfortunately, some commentators are also pushing for changes that that would make things even more difficult for copyright owners.

To read the rest of this post, please visit IPWatchdog.

Separating Fact from Fiction in the Notice and Takedown Debate

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) blog.

By Kevin Madigan & Devlin Hartline

With the Copyright Office undertaking a new study to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the Section 512 safe harbor provisions, there’s been much discussion about how well the DMCA’s notice and takedown system is working for copyright owners, service providers, and users. While hearing from a variety of viewpoints can help foster a healthy discussion, it’s important to separate rigorous research efforts from overblown reports that offer incomplete data in support of dubious policy recommendations.

Falling into the latter category is Notice and Takedown in Everyday Practice, a recently-released study claiming to take an in-depth look at how well the notice and takedown system operates after nearly twenty years in practice. The study has garnered numerous headlines that repeat its conclusion that nearly 30% of all takedown requests are “questionable” and that echo its suggestions for statutory reforms that invariably disfavor copyright owners. But what the headlines don’t mention is that the study presents only a narrow and misleading assessment of the notice and takedown process that overstates its findings and fails to adequately support its broad policy recommendations.

Presumably released to coincide with the deadline for submitting comments to the Copyright Office on the state of Section 512, the authors claim to have produced “the broadest empirical analysis of the DMCA notice and takedown” system to date. They make bold pronouncements about how “the notice and takedown system . . . meets the goals it was intended to address” and “continues to provide an efficient method of enforcement in many circumstances.” But the goals identified by the authors are heavily skewed towards service providers and users at the expense of copyright owners, and the authors include no empirical analysis of whether the notice and takedown system is actually effective at combating widespread piracy.

The study reads more like propaganda than robust empiricism. It should be taken for what it is: A policy piece masquerading as an independent study. The authors’ narrow focus on one sliver of the notice and takedown process, with no analysis of the systemic results, leads to conclusions and recommendations that completely ignore the central issue of whether Section 512 fosters an online environment that adequately protects the rights of copyright owners. The authors conveniently ignore this part of the DMCA calculus and instead put forth a series of proposals that would systematically make it harder for copyright owners to protect their property rights.

To its credit, the study acknowledges many of its own limitations. For example, the authors recognize that the “dominance of Google notices in our dataset limits our ability to draw broader conclusions about the notice ecosystem.” Indeed, over 99.992% of the individual requests in the dataset for the takedown study were directed at Google, with 99.8% of that dataset directed at Google Search in particular. Of course, search engines do not include user-generated content—the links Google provides are links that Google itself collects and publishes. There are no third parties to alert about the takedowns since Google is taking down its own content. Likewise, removing links from Google Search does not actually remove the linked-to content from the internet.

The authors correctly admit that “the characteristics of these notices cannot be extrapolated to the entire world of notice sending.” A more thorough quantitative study would include data on sites that host user-generated content, like YouTube and Facebook. As it stands, the study gives us some interesting data on one search engine, but even that data is limited to a sample size of 1,826 requests out of 108 million over a six-month period in mid-2013. And it’s not even clear how these samples were randomized since the authors admittedly created “tranches” to ensure the notices collected were “of great substantive interest,” but they provide no details about how they created these tranches.

Despite explicitly acknowledging that the study’s data is not generalizable, the authors nonetheless rely on it to make numerous policy suggestions that would affect the entire notice and takedown system and that would tilt the deck further in favor of infringement and against copyright owners. They even identify some of their suggestions as explicitly reflecting “Public Knowledge’s suggestion,” which is a far cry from a reasoned academic approach. The authors do note that “any changes should take into account the interests of . . . small- and medium-sized copyright holders,” but this is mere lip service. Their proposals would hurt copyright owners of all shapes and sizes.

The authors justify their policy proposals by pointing to the “mistaken and abusive takedown demands” that they allegedly uncover in the study. These so-called “questionable” notices are the supposed proof that the entire notice and takedown system needs fixing. A closer look at these “questionable” notices shows that they’re not nearly so questionable. The authors claim that 4.2% of the notices surveyed (about 77 notices) are “fundamentally flawed because they targeted content that clearly did not match the identified infringed work.” This figure includes obvious mismatches, where the titles aren’t even the same. But it also includes ambiguous notices, such as where the underlying work does not match the title or where the underlying page changes over time.

The bulk of the so-called “questionable” notices comes from those notices that raise “questions about compliance with the statutory requirements” (15.4%, about 281 notices) or raise “potential fair use defenses” (7.3%, about 133 notices). As to the statutory requirements issue, the authors argue that these notices make it difficult for Google to locate the material to take down. This claim is severely undercut by the fact that, as they acknowledge in a footnote, Google complies with 97.5% of takedown notices overall. Moreover, it wades into the murky waters of whether copyright owners can send service providers a “representative list” of infringing works. Turning to the complaint about potential fair uses, the authors argue that copyright owners are not adequately considering “mashups, remixes, or covers.” But none of these uses are inherently fair, and there’s no reason to think that the notices were sent in bad faith just because someone might be able to make a fair use argument.

The authors claim that their “recommendations for statutory reforms are relatively modest,” but that supposed modesty is absent from their broad list of suggestions. Of course, everything they suggest increases the burdens and liabilities of copyright owners while lowering the burdens and liabilities of users, service providers, and infringers. Having overplayed the data on “questionable” notices, the authors reveal their true biases. And it’s important to keep in mind that they make these broad suggestions that would affect everyone in the notice and takedown system after explicitly acknowledging that their data “cannot be extrapolated to the entire world of notice sending.” Indeed, the study contains no empirical data on sites that host user-generated content, so there’s nothing whatsoever to support any changes for such sites.

The study concludes that the increased use of automated systems to identify infringing works online has resulted in the need for better mechanisms to verify the accuracy of takedown requests, including human review. But the data is limited to small surveys with secret questions and a tiny fraction of notices sent to one search engine. The authors offer no analysis of the potential costs of implementing their recommendations, nor do they consider how it might affect the ability of copyright owners to police piracy. Furthermore, data presented later in the study suggests that increased human review might have little effect on the accuracy of takedown notices. Not only do the authors fail to address the larger problem of whether the DMCA adequately addresses online piracy, their suggestions aren’t even likely to address the narrower problem of inaccurate notices that they want to fix.

Worse still, the study almost completely discards the ability of users to contest mistaken or abusive notices by filing counternotices. This is the solution that’s already built into the DMCA, yet the authors inexplicably dismiss it as ineffective and unused. Apart from providing limited answers from a few unidentified survey respondents, the authors offer no data on the frequency or effectiveness of counternotices. The study repeatedly criticizes the counternotice system as failing to offer “due process protection” to users, but that belief is grounded in the notion that a user that fails to send a counternotice has somehow been denied the chance. Moreover, it implies a constitutional right that is not at issue when two parties interact in the absence of government action. The same holds true for the authors’ repeated—and mistaken—invocation of “freedom of expression.”

More fundamentally, the study ignores the fact that the counternotice system is stacked against copyright owners. A user can simply file a counternotice and have the content in question reposted, and most service providers are willing to repost the content following a counternotice because they’re no longer on the hook should the content turn out to be infringing. The copyright owner, by contrast, then faces the choice of allowing the infringement to continue or filing an expensive lawsuit in federal court. The study makes it sound like users are rendered helpless because counternotices are too onerous, but the reality is that the system leaves copyright owners practically powerless to combat bad faith counternotices.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the notice and takedown system needs a tune up. The amount of infringing content available online today is immense. This rampant piracy has resulted in an incredible number of takedown notices being sent to service providers by copyright owners each day. Undoubtedly, the notice and takedown system should be updated to address these realities. And to the extent that some are abusing the system, they should be held accountable. But in considering changes to the entire system, we should not be persuaded by biased studies based on limited (and secret) datasets that provide little to no support for their ultimate conclusions and recommendations. While it may make for evocative headlines, it doesn’t make for good policy.