In my last post I discussed the large cash reserves that companies have been holding since the 2007 recession. As I mentioned there are several reasons for this, some of it has to do with lack of R&D investment. R&D is an expensive investment. This requires both train scientists and equipment to conduct the research. In addition there are extra requirements for technicians and other employees to support the R&D effort. This isn’t cheap. As we can see in the bottom half of the chart all types of research funding has decreased recently.
R&D is not a certain thing by any stretch of the imagination. This is why companies are paring with universities to share the burden of R&D. Universities are doing much of the basic and applied research, while industry is developing it into product. This is where the money is and the greatest amount of certainty. You can’t really blame companies for this, but they need to work to develop their own technologies regardless of the work being performed at universities. To compensate many companies do engage in corporate venturing. This is where they fund a start up to conduct research and get a product to a certain position and possibly buy that company after a certain maturity point, set up an exclusive license or license the technology once it’s mature. This reduces the large company’s risk exposure.
The final piece that has increased since the late 80’s has been the amount of litigation due to patent infringement. In 2011 the amount of money spent on patent litigation was $29 Billion. That is a lot of money. That’s a quarter of the money that Apple has in it’s reserves. We also know that Apple is one of the largest spenders on litigation. I know there are a lot of Apple lovers out there, but they could have invested that money into more products and reduced their risk of a flop with the next iPhone. We all know that iOS6 was a major disappointment for many people, spreading their revenue stream into more sources with some cool research could mitigate any fall out from that or if iOS7 is more of the same.
Litigation is such an outsized risk because it can lead to your entire firm being shut down by a non-producing entity. This reduces the incentives for innovation and increases the incentives for hoarding cash.
Today Ars Technica reported on a case before the US Supreme Court and how the court is assuming that the usage of scientific data, which has been publish, is a valid patent. This is a pretty scary scenario. What do you mean? Well, the patent is related to how the levels of some chemical impact the dosage of a drug. That’s it. If you have level X in your blood you should have dosage Y. The patent holder created a device to test the level of the chemical in your blood which then suggests a dosage level. The Mayo clinic developed their own test and have been administering the test on their own without paying anything to the company. The arguments in the court essentially assume that this is a valid patent.
Should this patent be valid though? Seems like something that could be patented. Based on what is considered patentable, this should fall under mathematical formulas. Essentially, this is a matter of correlation and basic regression analysis. During a drug trial you can determine a correlation between the impact of a dosage of a drug on the current level resulting in a lower level of the chemical. This is really how all medicine works. If you can reduce costs by creating your own tests and administering it yourself then that’s great. Hospitals should be encouraged to do this if they are large enough.
This is what Doctors do. They read literature about the medicine the condition it’s supposed to impact and what sort of connection there is with the dosage levels and the response rate within the patients. Every doctor has to use a test to determine the level of a chemical or some condition. This can be the pulse (irregular heartbeats), blood pressure (pressure cuffs), blood sugar (A1 test) and the list goes on. In each case the doctor is able to assign a proper dosage prescription based on the study of patients. If a doctor was required to pay a licensing fee for each and every case of this our currently exorbitant costs of health care will seem cheap. Like when we used to complain about $1.50/gallon for gas.
The other problem with patenting something like this is that it’s likely to be highly unenforceable except for when a large institution like the Mayo Clinic. Individual practitioners will be safer than large clinics, but they could be impacted as well. If they are required to use an extremely expensive proprietary testing methodology rather than have the ability to use any testing method it will drive up prices and may put doctors out of business.
If the court rules on this as if these types of patents are valid, we will need to push to have patent law changed again. The last change moved things in general, in the right direction but a lot more work needs to be done.
There are several consequences of the differences between the US (and the west) and China (and other autocracies). First, with one of the major assumptions of neoclassical economics out the window, it calls into question basing economic policy on neoclassical economics. Second, with a monopoly structure for intellectual property several different economic incentives have been created. Finally, the differences in IP management between the countries creates tensions at several different levels. I’ll discuss each of these points in more detail.
First, if one of the major assumptions for economic policy includes non-rival, non-exclusive knowledge, it’s difficult to understand why there isn’t more competition in many markets. However, as we know it’s not really possible for any firm to pick up any sort of technology and start to produce a given product. Because of this difficulty regions and areas tend to become experts at specific types of technologies. However, even in the case of China the freedom of access to IP makes it easier for firms to produce specific products. The problem still lies in the fact that you still need tacit knowledge to actually make the product. A patent is supposed to give you the information you need to produce the technology. However, the actual patents are difficult to read and not likely to be possible
Second, with a monopoly structure in place for intellectual property it gives very different incentives for owners of intellectual property. First, for people who actually produce a product, attacking products that are similar for infringement can be a very lucrative proposition. It prevents other companies from becoming competition. Apple is currently using this tactic to go after Android through Samsung and HTC. With a full monopoly technological progress can actually come to a standstill. An example of this is with Xerox copiers. With the monopoly in place Xerox did not innovate and kept prices extremely high. As soon as their patent ran out the competition came in and almost took all of the market share from Xerox. They introduced lower priced products and a wider more personal product range. Without the monopoly in place other companies could try to move into the market space earlier and drive innovation from the beginning of the market. Finally, with reduced ownership of IP there will be less patent trolls like Intellectual Ventures.
Third, the IP management is causing issues between firms and the Chinese government. The firms do not want to give up their IP because it’s how they are able to make their money. Some of these technologies are so easy to copy it’s impossible to make a profit without protection. In theory pharmaceuticals should be perfectly copyable based on the chemical properties of the drug. If the pharmaceutical companies didn’t have a chance to recoup the investment on a drug (500 million – 1 billion per drug) there would be no innovation. The differences present problems for trade and agreements between countries. The US and China have had serious disagreements over how IP should be managed.
Basically, the differences in how IP is understood impacts a countries policies economically and in trade. It is important to understand exactly what’s going on with these issues. Our governments are pushing for different levels of control over IP both in patents and other forms of copyright. As some one interested in policy, it’s important to understand what types of policies we should be pushing for. I don’t think there’s any true right answer for the IP problem. In different situations policies should be adjusted. We cannot have a stagnant IP regime when technologies are evolving as fast as they are.
According to neoclassical economics knowledge is a non-rival (I can use it without preventing you from using it) and non-exclusive (available to everyone) resource. This has two impacts on their economic theory. First, the actual impact of research and development is excluded from economic growth and is ignored. Second, that any company should be able to pick up and produce any technology. Both of these points are relatively ridiculous. For two reasons. First, we know that research leads to the formation of new companies. Second we know that most companies cannot produce any product and many companies that produce products outside their expertise fail at it.
From a neoclassical perspective democracies are terrible at sharing knowledge and technologies. Democracies have a slew of laws that regulate access to technology form monopolies for specific technologies if they have something called a patent. Additionally, there are other contracts that can get in the way of sharing of knowledge in a way that is neoclassical. Non-disclosure agreements and non-compete clauses. If you aren’t allowed to discuss a specific technology with other people, it prevents knowledge from spreading and being shared to other companies. If you aren’t allowed to compete within the same industry after you leave a company, it prevents you from using that knowledge in a positive way at another firm.
These laws have been put into place in our democracies to ensure proper protection of technologies for firms. It’s designed to prevent the spreading of tacit knowledge from company A to company B. As a company this is incredibly desirable. Without these protections some research would be worthless to conduct. Knowledge spill-overs would cause prices to fall to cost or lower as firms compete for market share. It’s great for consumers, but bad for firms.
So what happens in China? Well according to Make it in America, China requires many firms to hand over their Intellectual Property to the Chinese state. What ends up happening after this is that the Chinese government sells the information or gives the information to one or more Chinese company. These companies tend to be made up of former employees at the company that made the product before. This allows tacit knowledge transfer to the firm and a fast ramp to compete directly with the inventor of the technology. The knowledge is freer in China than it is in the US because of this. This increases competition and may be impacting the cost of goods like solar panels.
In a way this type of behavior forces companies to compete based on the actual costs of the technology. This is what is expected in the neoclassical theory. All prices will eventually drop to the marginal cost of a product with near zero profits for the producing company. In a perverse way, this is a “freer” market than ours because it comes closer to the non-rival non-exclusive knowledge base.