A number of different government policies can increase the incentives to innovate, including: guaranteeing intellectual property rights, government assistance with the costs of research and development, and cooperative research ventures between universities and companies.
Intellectual Property Rights
One way to increase new technology is to guarantee the innovator an exclusive right to that new product or process. Intellectual property rights include patents, which give the inventor the exclusive legal right to make, use, or sell the invention for a limited time, and copyright laws, which give the author an exclusive legal right over works of literature, music, film/video, and pictures. For example, if a pharmaceutical firm has a patent on a new drug, then no other firm can manufacture or sell that drug for twenty-one years, unless the firm with the patent grants permission. Without a patent, the pharmaceutical firm would have to face competition for any successful products, and could earn no more than a normal rate of profit. With a patent, a firm is able to earn monopoly profits on its product for a period of time—which offers an incentive for research and development. In general, how long can “a period of time” be? The Clear it Up discusses patent and copyright protection timeframes for some works you might have heard of.
All patents and copyrights are scheduled to end someday. In 2003, copyright protection for Mickey Mouse was scheduled to run out. Once the copyright had expired, anyone would be able to copy Mickey Mouse cartoons or draw and sell new ones. In 1998, however, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. For copyrights owned by companies or other entities, it increased or extended the copyright from 75 years to 95 years after publication. For copyrights owned by individuals, it increased or extended the copyright coverage from 50 years to 70 years after death. Along with protecting Mickey for another 20 years, the copyright extension affected about 400,000 books, movies, and songs.
This figure illustrates how the total number of patent applications filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as well as the total number of patents granted, surged in the mid-1990s with the invention of the Internet, and is still going strong today.
Patents Filed and Granted, 1981–2012
While patents provide an incentive to innovate by protecting the innovator, they are not perfect. For example:
- In countries that already have patents, economic studies show that inventors receive only one-third to one-half of the total economic value of their inventions.
- In a fast-moving high-technology industry like biotechnology or semiconductor design, patents may be almost irrelevant because technology is advancing so quickly.
- Not every new idea can be protected with a patent or a copyright—for example, a new way of organizing a factory or a new way of training employees.
- Patents may sometimes cover too much or be granted too easily. In the early 1970s, Xerox had received over 1,700 patents on various elements of the photocopy machine. Every time Xerox improved the photocopier, it received a patent on the improvement.
- The 21-year time period for a patent is somewhat arbitrary. Ideally, a patent should cover a long enough period of time for the inventor to earn a good return, but not so long that it allows the inventor to charge a monopoly price permanently.
Because patents are imperfect and do not apply well to all situations, alternative methods of improving the rate of return for inventors of new technology are desirable. Some of these possible alternative policies are described in the following sections.