Why patents slow the advancement of knowledge

Human knowledge, I believe, is a result of mixing and innovating already existing knowledge and making it into a form that is useful and relevant to the human race. All inventions, I believe have drawn upon age old knowledge dating back to the time of the first man with the improvised club in his hand. And in this, I believe there are no basis for intellectual monopolies such as patents.

Imagine if the man who invented the first club maintained an intellectual monopoly for the use of clubs for a thousand years. Human advancement in weapons would then be taken aback a thousand years since other people wouldn’t be able to improve upon it to ensure their survival. This example is admittedly extreme, but this is what happens today. Big Tech and Pharmaceutical  firms patenting as much piece of technology they could so as to gain revenue for its use and secure monopolies in (future, if the technology is under development) markets.

The government and many advocates of science says that granting such an intellectual monopoly actually incentivises innovation by ensuring that the scientist or innovator would have a sure (or more aptly, a more certain) return to their investments. But to see this as such is to flatten the dimension of ‘return’ to the financial kind. Many programmers in the net offer tutorial for free because of non-monetary incentives like being famous, being able to help and doing what they love. If we account for these non-monetary costs, I believe we should have to set-up monopolies for being Pharma and Tech to recoup its investments, rather the act of inventing the drug or technology that saves lives or makes a credible impact to mankind could be a huge incentive already.

These advocates of science fear that if the patent system is abolished, companies would not have the incentive to innovate and human knowledge as we know it may slow in its advancement. I believe patents have already done this effect. By disallowing firms from building upon the technologies of patented innovations, companies are forced to find another unique, unpatented way to produce things (which can be costly), or worse, abandon the project, in fear that just paying for that technology would siphon away possible returns.

This phenomenon is aptly called “Tragedy of the anticommons”. Since people owned component of knowledge and refuse to cooperate, coordinate and compromise with the other knowledge holders in order to come up with something of more value to humanity, and possibly to both firms in general. This results into a kind of collective action failure that results from each party having little incentive on its own to share or cooperate as a group in that it overlooks that the best way they could generate value from what they have is together.

These parties, having intellectual monopolies over portions of knowledge on its own is barely useful, are effectively pulling back the advancement of human knowledge by building legal barriers to information, very much like the conceptual example of the stone age man having a patent on the improvised club for a thousand years.


Raphael Justin A. Jambalos



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