In an email someone mentioned to me a particular key invention from a few decades ago, which was responsible for a number of other high-tech innovations that we now enjoy, and asked me to “show us how any of that could have happened if there were no patents.” My response is below.
Why is the burden on me to show how it could have happened without patents? The question is itself question-begging, as it assumes the patents played a causal role, which must be either explained away or for which a substitute incentive effect must be found.
I’d say that almost any invention that comes will come eventually–maybe even sooner, absent the patent system, absent the state (see Yet Another Study Finds Patents Do Not Encourage Innovation). In my experience, this view is almost universal among inventors and engineers. We would have had transistors by now without Shockley, Planck, and Schrödinger; we would have had light bulbs without Edison; and one-click purchasing on web sites without Jeff Bezos. Maybe a bit later, but eventually. And maybe even earlier–patents slow things down too, after all.
And we cannot forget that a huge factor in innovation is wealth. Wealth is needed to provide spare time and resources to engage in research and development. And wealth is no doubt hampered severely in a society that has a state, which any patent society must. Without a state there would be no patents, but a far richer world, and more innovation because of that factor alone.
Finally–so what if we wouldn’t have had invention X, Y, Z, as early, or even ever, without a patent system? After all, a patent system undeniably has costs in terms of both rights and money. How can it be shown that having invention X is worth the violation of rights incurred as a result of the patent system necessary to generate X? Utilitarianism is a bankrupt doctrine, after all. And even if you approach it from a utilitarian, wealth-maximization angle: how can it be shown–who has shown?–that the cost of the patent system that generates X is less than the value of X?