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How IP Rights Keep Markets Free
Ezra Bailey/Getty Images
Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

How IP Rights Keep Markets Free

Jonathan M. Barnett

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Executive Summary

It is elementary that secure protection of property rights is a necessary precondition for efficient markets that drive economic growth. Yet this principle is not always recognized in the case of markets for intangible goods. Rather, intellectual property rights are often characterized as a monopoly franchise that stands at odds with free-market competition. Following this view, IP rights at best provide a justifiable means to incentivize innovation but are prone to abuse by incumbents seeking to block entrants.

This standard narrative overlooks an inconvenient fact. As I show in a new book, Innovators, Firms, and Markets: The Organizational Logic of Intellectual Property, incumbents and other large firms in US technology markets have regularly advocated against stronger forms of patent protection and, in certain industries, have resisted patent protection entirely. This lobbying strategy poses a puzzle: Why would dominant firms resist the opportunity to operate under the umbrella of a legal monopoly?

This policy memo analyzes the counterintuitive IP policy preferences of large technology firms and, in resolving this apparent anomaly, shows that patents tend to enhance competitive intensity by enabling idea-rich but capital-poor innovators to challenge idea-poor but capital-rich incumbents. Contrary to widespread assumptions, IP rights are far closer to the familiar property rights that support tangible goods markets rather than the monopoly grant to which they are often (and misleadingly) analogized. These insights, which are based on over a century’s worth of US innovation history, raise significant concerns about the IP-skeptical trajectory that policymakers have pursued since the mid-2000s.

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