Should the White House crack down on patent trolls, or on patents?

That patents boost innovation is received wisdom, but it might not be true.

The Obama administration has sung the tune that Silicon Valley wants to hear, and will be cracking down on patent trolling – even announcing the policy in the web-friendly format of animated gif:

Patent trolling is the colloquial name for a bundle of strategies used by companies technically known as "non-practicing entities", which own patents on technologies which they have not brought to market. The patents used are frequently broad claims, granted by patent clerks with a lack of knowledge of the area. Often they stem from the early days of the internet, and cover ideas which can be summed up as "use the internet to do something".

Once the NPE has got hold of the patent, usually through buying up the portfolio of an older company, they then start threatening smaller companies with lawsuits. Key to the plan is that few of these lawsuits actually come to pass – instead, the companies are bullied into paying "license fees" to avoid the suit. That's because the trolls could ill-afford to have too many cases going on at once, but also because once they head to court, they run the risk that their patent will be invalidated (or at least that it will be ruled to be much narrower than they've construed it).

The "non-practicing entity" part of the equation is most important because many industries exist in a tangled web of patent infringement and licensing. Apple probably infringes a bunch of Google's patents on something – just because Google holds so many patents – but the converse is also true. The two companies end up existing in a state of mutually assured destruction, which NPEs can bypass.

But the other reason why NPEs are the focus of the changes is that they're easy to vilify. They don't make useful products, they don't have public profiles, and many of them don't even have any real link to the person who filed the patent in the first. But they are merely a symptom, not a cause, of the problems of the patent system.

Overly-broad patents have been granted to practicing entities as well. Amazon managed to patent the idea of ordering an item with one click, and it took eight years and a whole lot of publicity for the US patent office to force them to amend it. And they aren't just granted in technology. Here's a patent for "the process and apparatus for refreshing bread products, particularly open face items such as sliced rolls, buns, muffins, and the like" by heating them. You may know it as a "toaster". The patent was granted in 1999 and only lapsed when the inventor stopped paying the renewal fees.

And while it's easy to vilify NPEs, they do have a reason for existing. Theoretically, patents encourage two things: invention, and disclosure. Because you can't patent something without fully describing what it is and how you do it, it ensures that creators reveal their inventions to the world, so that when the patent lapses, everyone else can copy it. In theory, NPEs encourage inventors who might not have the wherewithal to bring something to market to still disclose it; and then, with the simple payment of a license fee, others can build on it.

In practice, of course, this doesn't happen. The industries where patent trolling is most common have little need for this sort of disclosure, since they're ones where it's encouraged in other ways; biotech leans heavily on peer-review, and coding on open-source. And the sort of actually-insightful inventions which we want to be disclosed are useless for patent trolling, since by definition they won't be independently invented. Instead, patent trolls need patents which as many people will infringe as possible.

But if we're comparing theory to practice, we need to go further than just asking whether patent trolls are broken in practice. What about the entire system?

Patently problematic

Patents have been around for so long that it's often forgotten that, prima facie, they're a bad thing. A patent is a government-granted monopoly on the exploitation of an invention, limited for a short time period. The immediate effect of that is the same as with all monopolies: the monopolist gets the chance to limit the supply of the product in an effort to increase their profit margins.

So patents start off on the back foot, and must justify their existence somehow. That justification comes back to the theoretical advantages of patents encourage: invention, and disclosure. The idea is that the monopoly, and the increased money which the inventor accrues from it, encourages innovation. Without patents, it is claimed, inventors would not be able to make any money from their creations, and may just not bother.

Even that advantage is actually a post-hoc justification, though. In the early days of patents, before their commission was codified and organised, they were granted as a sort of reward to inventors. The economic concepts of incentives had not yet come about, and the best way to get a patent was to have a mate in parliament who could make the case that a state-granted monopoly was your just desert.

That system was the worst of both worlds. Since a patent wasn't guaranteed to an inventor, it could do little to encourage invention; but if it was granted after the fact, it would do a great deal to stymie growth in that sector in the future. Economists Michele Boldrin and David Levine, in their book Against Intellectual Monopoly (available online in its entirety, naturally), detail what happened to the steam industry in the years during and after James Watt patented his engine:

During the period of Watt’s patents the U.K. added about 750 horsepower of steam engines per year. In the thirty years following Watt’s patents, additional horsepower was added at a rate of more than 4,000 per year. Moreover, the fuel efficiency of steam engines changed little during the period of Watt’s patent; while between 1810 and 1835 it is estimated to have increased by a factor of five.

Patents do harm. The question is whether they do good as well, and enough good to outweigh the harm

As the system has progressed since then, the scope of what is patentable has increased dramatically. Whereas the patent system initially covered physical inventions only, it soon grew to encompass things like business methods, software innovations, and genetics. If patents encourage innovation, then we would expect a burst of invention shortly after they're expanded to a new area. That is not quite what Boldrin and Levine find.

They look at a number of examples, from US agriculture – which grew from a system where only "some mechanical and chemical inventions" could be patented to one where plants and biotech inventions could be – to the software industry. In every case, they find that the extension of patents to the industry had little effect, or even a negative effect, on productivity growth.

It's hard to measure the actual effect of patents. Partially that's because the typical measure for the level of innovation in society is the number of patents granted – which is obviously not suitable for an inward-looking examination of the system. But it's also because their existence is such received wisdom that we have to hunt hard to find examples where they aren't in effect. And many of those examples are new fields, where we'd expect a burst of innovation anyway.

Nonetheless, the balance of evidence isn't as clear cut as popular perception would have it. If the Obama White House really wants to help America's innovators, and free them from the tyranny of being sued for invention, it could consider ending patents entirely.

A young Albert Einstein. The physicist was a patent clerk as a young man. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.