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Why Patents? The History and Evidence

Digital IP is kind of interesting because IP is a creature of Congress. It isn't like real property where there is a common law basis for it exactly (though many parts of the doctrine come from common law, like fair use). So basically it is up to Congress to determine what the right social mix is. With digital IP clearly there are some things that should remain IP and that doesn't change just because the form changes (like stealing a movie) but there are aspects where the ease of replication may cause us to want to change the balance of some of these rights. It comes up more in copyright than in patents. (Larry Lessig has a great talk on "remix culture" and the ways in which laws might evolve to accommodate new art forms.) Thanks for reading!

Why Patents? The History and Evidence

These are all great points. But I have to say I don't agree that the question is whether patents are required for the formation of a corporation because that excludes a lot of R&D that might be done by an existing corporation. Maybe the best way to put it is whether it increases the share of R&D invested in science and technology. These are all so tricky to measure; "invention" is abstract, but R&D includes, for example, buying servers.

For what it's worth, I don't think that the evidence of multiple inventions is devastating for capital formation around inventions. The question is whether it increases invention overall, for example in helping companies attract financing or just providing more capital (for example, through licensing) to do other things. The evidence there is in favor of patents, but of course, to some extent capital formation bleeds into technology diffusion. For example, some of the papers I talk about show how patents help startups attract VC, get higher sales, and get exits more often. Is that evidence of attracting capital, or is that a longitudinal piece of evidence that the technology got more widely diffused? And how does that relate to the counter-factual of whether this increased the amount of invention? To me it's clear that inventors invent because that's who they are. Patents would help facilitate invention by helping inventors attract more resources to invent in the first place. (The result could be negative if the blocking rights become too severe of course!)

One last thing, I completely agree with you on the difference between NPEs and PAEs. On top of universities et al, I'd also add R&D companies that monetize through patent licensing, like ARM. 

ejz's Shortform

I'm working on an essay on patents and progress. Does anyone want to give it a read and give me some feedback?

It’s Time for Greater San Francisco

Funny enough, Chicago didn't have a dramatic consolidation, but it is the result of a lot of annexation. During the failed 1912 SF consolidation, Chicago was also held up as an example of a successful consolidation. Toronto consolidated in the 1990s. So it can still happen.

Transit is challenging. As I talk about in the piece, I don't think that every consolidation makes sense. You can't say "it's all integrated" or "there's regional rail, so become one city!" and free-riding is a timeless problem. SF is is somewhat unique at this point in time in how uniquely it's connected without being merged. Maybe LA comes close.

I think the issue with the taxing authority for a supra-authority is you run into issues of authority. I think school boards are somewhat like this, where they are funded by real taxes and people vote on their representation, and they take it really seriously, but it isn't quite a municipality. County elections are like this too for things like sheriffs. 

It’s Time for Greater San Francisco

I think awareness this is an option is an important part. It's also a multi-step process where I think you can have multiple parts. Maybe consolidate the police department and the many transit agencies. Perhaps some of the smaller towns into some of the bigger cities. 

The most important part is just that the conditions need to already exist. There's already a cultural connection and integrated economy. The legal conditions are already there. Now we just need to build political will over a decade+ with an organized, if quiet, movement with small steps over time.

We Should Break Up Elite Colleges

One interesting thing: when you look at the “best” colleges for specific subjects say 80 years ago it seems like there was more heterogeneity and small colleges with some specialty. Today the best colleges are all “the best” at every subject.

Is Innovation in Human Nature?

Funny, growing up in the US we’re taught a version of human history that centralizes technology. We’re taught that what makes Australopithecus special was walking and inventing stone tools, homo erectus is inventing fire, and so on. Invention is almost framed as what makes us human!

Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

Good point, though I don't find looking at a selection of areas as too convincing. I could just as easily choose areas with consistent exponential growth that I would guess don't look like this, like solar panels or genome sequencing. Even if things were getting better on average you would expect some things to get less efficient over time too. (for example, think about that inflation components chart people share all the time)

One last thing: we would probably want to look at output and not inputs. Robert Gordon's sort-of nemesis, Chad Syverson, has done work on how some big super-trends take a long time to develop and even have an impact on the world, like steam rail and electricity. Might be worth looking into as a counterpoint to the Gordon thesis.

Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

One thing I'd like to see is a discussion of the potential for measurement error. For example, software is notably deflationary yet we don't see that in the statistics due to how we count. (We still don't really know how to value the contribution of software to GDP.) Bloom (2020) may just be measuring the wrong outputs for the current type of progress. For example, if publications or patents are a weaker signal for ideas than in the past, the methodology breaks down.

Why doesn't progress seem to propagate?

I know it but it’s still pretty specific to the technologies and products the author is interested in. I’m more interested in a general question of: there are a number of technologies where the implementation barriers seem nontechnical, and it seems like it’s getting worse. Curious why.

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