News analysis and op-ed pieces following the $1 billion jury decision in Apple v. Samsung have been filled with reactive statements critical of the US patent system. Apple’s enforcement of its patents may “literally choke innovation” cried one law professor. Others have asserted that holding Samsung accountable for its theft of Apple’s property will prove harmful to consumers. A critic of the decision said that cases like this will require competitors to innovators like Apple to be much more mindful of patents and to “try to avoid or secure rights to [patents]” before bringing a product to market.
What the critics have not explained is how making it easier for a foreign company like Samsung to steal US-born innovation is in our long-term national interest.
Only a few weeks prior to the Apple decision, another American jury handed down a $1 billion judgment in another patent infringement case brought by another American company against a competitor. In that case (which the media ironically paid little attention to), Monsanto – the world’s leader in sustainable agriculture – prevailed in an infringement action involving the theft of its revolutionary seed technology. Just as Apple’s vision and risk-taking in the consumer electronics market revolutionized the industry, Monsanto bet the company on its seed technologies and transformed the business of agriculture. The verdicts in these two cases should not be treated as outliers. Rather, they should be accepted by Americans as foreseeable and desired outcomes of a pro-IP industrial policy America has embraced for decades.
In their excellent book The Invisible Edge, IP business strategists Mark Blaxill and Ralph Eckardt help put today’s patent policy debate into some historic and patriotic perspective. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, misguided antitrust policies led government regulators to muscle US innovators like Xerox into effectively giving away their patents to competitors. In the pursuit of promoting more competition, US antitrust regulators directed and supervised a fire sale of America’s technological wealth; effectively gift-wrapping homegrown innovation and donating it to developing economies like Japan thereby making possible the success of companies like Canon, Toshiba, and Sharp. Antitrust ruled the roost and enforcement of IP by US companies took a back seat.
Although it was too late for Xerox, Blaxill and Eckardt describe how a new industrial policy began to develop in the late 1970s that required the US to strengthen protection of IP in order to: 1. encourage domestic innovation and 2. provide US innovators with the tools needed to defend against unfair foreign competition. Over a period of decades, the US drove the world’s IP policy agenda and led by example enacting TRIPS, The Trade Act of 1974, The Bayh-Dole Act, and many other IP-strengthening and innovation spawning reforms. This shift in policy also led the US to press for worldwide acceptance and adoption of strong IP polices as well. The US essentially bet long on the importance of IP to its economy; effectively negotiating away tariffs on textile and other imports in exchange for foreign adoption of IP laws.
Today, American companies lead the world in industries where technology is important and – not coincidentally – most of that technology has been patented. If managed properly, our IP advantage gives American companies greater say about where the fruits of US innovation – profits and jobs – wind up. Like it or not, in a world where the US is not a dent on domestic manufacturing, IP is increasingly critical to our future prosperity.
China – which realizes that India, Vietnam, and other nations could soon take the manufacturing jobs it took from the US – has more recently begun to realize the importance of IP to their economic interests. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has said, “The competition of the future world is a competition for intellectual property rights.”
The pro-IP policies that the US embraced and advanced over a period of decades are bearing fruit and helped safeguard the innovation that Apple and Monsanto brought to their respective industries. Whether the amounts awarded in each of this month’s decisions survive appeal is not as important as the fact that both decisions sided with legitimately aggrieved inventors. The fact that average Americans, sitting as jurors, safeguarded that system is equally significant. Apple and Monsanto gambled and invested in breakthrough technologies without anyone at a federal government agency or law school guaranteeing them success. They created markets which, heretofore, did not exist which have generated wealth, jobs, and consumer gain.
At a time when the US policymakers rightly continue to view our Nation’s economic future as one tied to innovation, the Apple and Monsanto cases are important reminders of the role strong intellectual property policies play in fostering, encouraging and protecting that innovation. In both the Apple and Monsanto cases, the infringers – both determined to be willful infringers – sought to shortcut and skip years of research by essentially copying or using the inventions of others – without payment or permission. We should be loath to grant credence to the blogosphere activists, advocates for international wealth redistribution, and technology implementers who decry a broken US patent system. Of course the US patent system has its share of problems and inefficiencies. But the modest costs and inefficiencies should be measured against what the current patent system assures the American economy of – a continuing flow of capital to innovation.
Advancing policies that promote iPhone knock-offs that have a short term cost benefit for consumers today may mean less jobs for those same consumers tomorrow.