“Antitrust” or “competition law,” a set of policies now existing in most market economies, largely consists of two or three specific rules applied in more or less the same way in most nations. It prohibits (1) multilateral agreements, (2) unilateral conduct, and (3) mergers or acquisitions, whenever any of them are judged to interfere unduly with the functioning of healthy markets. Most jurisdictions now apply or purport to apply these rules in the service of some notion of economic “efficiency,” more or less as defined in contemporary microeconomic theory.
The law has ancient roots, however, and over time it has varied a great deal in its details. Moreover, even as to its modern form, the policy and its goals remain controversial. In some sense most modern controversy arises from or is in reaction to the major intellectual reconceptualization of the law and its purposes that began in the 1960s. Specifically, academic critics in the United States urged revision of the law’s goals, such that it should serve only a narrowly defined microeconomic goal of allocational efficiency, whereas it had traditionally also sought to prevent accumulation of political power and to protect small firms, entrepreneurs, and individual liberty. While those critics enjoyed significant success in the United States, and to a somewhat lesser degree in Europe and elsewhere, the results remain contested. Specific disputes continue over the law’s general purpose, whether it poses net benefits, how a series of specific doctrines should be fashioned, how it should be enforced, and whether it really is appropriate for developing and small-market economies.
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.
Jeffrey L. Harrison
Without copyright law, authors would be unable to internalize the benefits of their writings. Copyright law reacts to this by providing authors with a period of exclusivity. The relevant legislation has a contract-like character; authors receive a period of exclusivity, and the public benefits by virtue of original writings that eventually pass into the public domain. Ideally each contract between the public and an author would be individually negotiated. Because U.S. copyright law is strictly utilitarian, authors would be “paid” the lowest amount possible to bring their works into existence. For example, popular authors may be able to internalize sufficient returns in just a few years. In other cases, a longer period of exclusivity is necessary. Huge transaction costs prohibit individual transactions and, at this writing, most works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.
As an economic matter, the actual implementation of copyright law is hard to rationalize. Works with even a modicum of creativity are copyrightable. This can result in a disincentive to be creative and invites expensive legal disputes about works that are socially irrelevant. In addition, works receive levels of protection that are independent of their value to the public. In some instances Congress with the approval of the Supreme Court has extended the copyright term for works already in existence. Retroactive extension of the copyright term cannot have an impact on works in existence. Oddly, copyright law views authors as profit maximizers but also limits the value of their works by allowing heirs to terminate assignments after a set period of time. Finally, the remedy for copyright infringement is the damages suffered by the author plus all profits made by the infringer that can be traced to the infringement. It is not clear that this remedy is consistent with the goals of copyright law.
Law and economics is an important, growing field of specialization for both legal scholars and economists. It applies efficiency analysis to property, contracts, torts, procedure, and many other areas of the law. The use of economics as a methodology for understanding law is not immune to criticism. The rationality assumption and the efficiency principle have been intensively debated. Overall, the field has advanced in recent years by incorporating insights from psychology and other social sciences. In that respect, many questions concerning the efficiency of legal rules and norms are still open and respond to a multifaceted balance among diverse costs and benefits. The role of courts in explaining economic performance is a more specific area of analysis that emerged in the late 1990s. The relationship between law and economic growth is complex and debatable. An important literature has pointed to significant differences at the macro-level between the Anglo-American common law family and the civil law families. Although these initial results have been heavily scrutinized, other important subjects have surfaced such as convergence of legal systems, transplants, infrastructure of legal systems, rule of law and development, among others.