A patent is a legal right to exclude granted by the state to the inventor of a novel and useful invention. Much legal ink has been spilled on the meaning of these terms. “Novel” means that the invention has not been anticipated in the art prior to its creation by the inventor. “Useful” means that the invention has a practical application. The words “inventor” and “invention” are also legal terms of art. An invention is a work that advances a particular field, moving practitioners forward not simply through accretions of knowledge but through concrete implementations. An inventor is someone who contributes to an invention either as an individual or as part of a team. The exclusive right, finally, is not granted gratuitously. The inventor must apply and go through a review process for the invention. Furthermore, a price for the patent being granted is full, clear disclosure by the inventor of how to practice the invention. The public can use this disclosure once the patent expires or through a license during the duration of the patent.
These institutional details are common features of all patent systems. What is interesting is the economic justification for patents. As a property right, a patent resolves certain externality problems that arise in markets for knowledge. The establishment of property rights allows for trade in the invention and the dissemination of knowledge. However, the economic case for property rights is made complex because of the institutional need to apply for a patent. While in theory, patent grants could be automatic, inventions must meet certain standards for the grant to be justified. These procedural hurdles create possibilities for gamesmanship in how property rights are allocated.
Furthermore, even if granted correctly, property rights can become murky because of the problems of enforcement through litigation. Courts must determine when an invention has been used, made, or sold without permission by a third party in violation of the rights of the patent owner. This legal process can lead to gamesmanship as patent owners try to force settlements from alleged infringers. Meanwhile, third parties may act opportunistically to take advantage of the uncertain boundaries of patent rights and engage in undetectable infringement. Exacerbating these tendencies are the difficulties in determining damages and the possibility of injunctive relief.
Some caution against these criticisms through the observation that most patents are not enforced. In fact, most granted patents turn out to be worthless, when gauged in commercial value. But worthless patents still have potential litigation value. While a patent owner might view a worthless patent as a sunk cost, there is incentive to recoup investment through the sale of worthless patents to parties willing to assume the risk of litigation. Hence the phenomenon of “trolling,” or the rise of non-practicing entities, troubles the patent landscape. This phenomenon gives rise to concerns with the anticompetitive uses of patents, demonstrating the need for some limitations on patent enforcement.
With all the policy concerns arising from patents, it is no surprise that patent law has been ripe for reform. Economic analysis can inform these reform efforts by identifying ways in which patents fail to create a vibrant market for inventions. Appreciation of the political economy of patents invites a rich academic and policy debate over the direction of patent law.