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The authors searched the patent records for all of these innovations to determine which of them were patented or not, and conclude “a relative low number of important innovations are patented“. In particular, they found that only about 10% of “important” inventions are patented (this number varied a bit based on the industry). This implies that most important innovations are not patented. For most innovations, the innovating companies rely on trade secrecy, lead time/first to market advantages, or other strategies, instead of on the patent system.
One obvious conclusion to be drawn from this study is that patents are not a significant driver of most innovation, if 90% of important inventions are never patented in the first place.
One obvious conclusion to be drawn from this study is that patents are not a significant driver of most innovation, if 90% of important inventions are never patented in the first place. Proponents of the patent system often claim that patents are necessary to provide an incentive to innovate; some even (ridiculously) claim that without patents, all innovation would grind to a halt (the truth is the opposite: if patents were made universal and had a perpetual term, all human life would grind to a halt; no offense Galambosians). But even if the 10% of innovations that are patented would never have resulted without the incentives provided by a patent system (an absurd assumption), the great bulk of technological innovations and breakthroughs in modern times would still have come about.
Penicillin, x rays, tissue culture, ether (anaesthetic), chlorpromazine, public sanitation, germ theory, evidence based medicine, vaccines, the pill, computers, oral rehydration therapy, DNA structure, monoclonal antibody, technology, smoking health risk.
How many entries in this list were patented, or were due to some previous patent, or were obtained during a research project motivated by the desire to obtain a patent? Two: chlorpromazine and the pill. Is this a fluke? We do not think so. In the same issue (freely available on line) of the BMJ you can find references to other similar lists. A particularly interesting one was compiled since 1999-2000 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): a top 10 list of public health achievements of the 20th century in the United States. How do medical patents score on this one? Zero. The editor of the BMJ, recognizing the intrinsic arbitrariness of any top-N list, somewhere in the editorial presentation names her three beloved ones among the excluded, “Where are Aspirin, Helicobacter pylori, and Medline?” Good point, and we ask: do they owe anything to patents? Not at all.
In particular, they found that only about 10% of “important” inventions are patented (this number varied a bit based on the industry)
x rays, public sanitation, germ theory, evidence based medicine, vaccines, computers, oral rehydration therapy, technology, smoking health risk.
the liquid crystal display (1980),
the printer (1986),
and HDTV (1998)