Why laws aren’t enough, and what we can do to improve access to intellectual property protection and development

I was going to write about a lighter topic for a first post. But I was inspired to discuss something a little deeper after listening to an interview of Dr. Lisa Cook the other day. (The full NPR interview is available here). In brief, she discusses “blind spots” in the economic theory that laws supporting innovation will always lead to more innovation. As Dr. Cook outlines, this theory is over-simplified to the point of being unreliable, for it ignores a host of other considerations:

  • Laws only work when enforced

  • Laws that are designed to encourage action work best when applied equally

  • Historical events undeniably shape behavior, and by extension, innovation

  • An individual’s general social environment shapes the ability to innovate

These considerations may seem intuitive, but Dr. Cook points out there is a surprising dearth of data discussing their impact on innovation and prosperity. I highly suggest you check our her research for yourself, but here are some data points from her work that are worth highlighting:

  • From 1860-1910 was the peak period for African American innovation (according to patent filings)

  • Lynchings affected patent filings of African Americans significantly across the country, regardless of where the lynchings took place

  • A sharp decline in U.S. patent filings by African Americans occured after the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (upholding the constitutionality of segregation in the United States)

  • Segregation laws especially hurt electrical patents of African Americans, and those patents are generally considered to be the most valuable due to their complexity and higher allowance rates at the U.S.P.T.O.

  • Another sharp decline in U.S. patent filings by African Americans occurred after the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre in 1921

  • An estimation of “Missing Patents” —those by African Americans that were not filed as a result of violence—add up to roughly the same amount of patents issued by a medium-sized European country at the time

  • In modern times, venture capital funding for innovation has a far greater impact on wealth developed from innovation than STEM education or laboratory time

  • As a result of African Americans of being excluded in the U.S. innovation legal structure, the United States is losing 4.4% of GDP each year

Though not explicitly discussed in the interview, implicit in these data is that the ability to use the laws is just as important (if not, moreso) as the laws themselves. For example, after Plessy, laws were passed that pushed African Americans into substandard housing and schools, and/or cut off access to public libraries, commercial districts, and forums where ideas were typically shared. Many African Americans lost their jobs where they were encouraged to innovate after Plessy as well. (It would be nearly impossible to get a patent filed if you couldn’t talk to a lawyer, search patent registries, or live in a decent home.)

Dr. Cook discusses system-wide approaches for encouraging innovation for African Americans, and hopefully people smarter than I am will adopt her proposals. On a more local level, I would also encourage innovators to check out some additional resources to gain access to legal services related to intellectual property protection:

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully this will help a few more innovate people gain access to intellectual property protection. If you have any questions about your invention or project, feel free to drop me a line.

-Tim