Recent Events – Intellectual property rights: What are they good for? Absolutely nothing?

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Multidisciplinary Research Workshop with David Levine

Wednesday 9 November 2011, Villa La Fonte

“Protecting Intellectual Property Rights or Creativity?”

By Chris Colvin and Andrea Wechsler, Max Weber Fellows

In a workshop on the future of intellectual property rights, a multidisciplinary panel of EUI Ph.D. researchers, post-doctoral Fellows and faculty quizzed David K. Levine (Professor of Economics at Washington University of St. Louis, and visitor at the EUI’s Department of Economics) on his mission to convince the world that abolishing patents and copyrights will improve economic prosperity for all and lead to more, not less, innovation.

Co-author, with Michele Boldrin, of the influential polemic Against Intellectual Monopoly (Cambridge, 2008), Levine is one of the leaders of a growing movement of academics opposed to the world’s current intellectual property rights regime.

The workshop, which was structured along the lines of a UK Parliamentary Select Committee hearing, paid special attention to the feasibility of Levine’s policy recommendations.

Levine, who acted as an expert witness to a “Max Weber Programme Select Committee on Intellectual Property Rights”, answered a series of pointed questions posed by members of the panel. Together, these addressed the basics of intellectual property protection, the details of Levine’s published arguments, and critiques of his views using insights from economics, history and law.

The workshop, which was co-sponsored by the EUI’s Global Governance Programme, was organized by Chris Colvin (MWF, HEC) and Andrea Wechsler (MWF, LAW). The other panel members wereRosaCastro (JMF, RSC), Benjamin Farrand (Ph.D. researcher, LAW), Luca Molà (Professor, HEC), Giovanni Sartor (Professor, LAW), and Lauri Tähtinen (MWF, HEC).

Following an introductory exchange with Wechsler, Levine explained that the two justifications that economists give for extending property rights to inventions are flawed; they don’t incentivise innovation, and certainly don’t improve the distribution of new ideas. He then addressed Farrand’s concerns over moral rights, arguing that copying without correct attribution is plagiarism, which results in much harsher penalties than copyright infringements.

Levine agreed with Molà’s opinion that there was probably a change in the effectiveness of patent protection over time, and that for short periods in history patent rights may have done their job. Tähtinen’s comparison of patents with other monopoly rights in history led to an interesting exchange on the effectiveness of Levine’s policy recommendations. Colvin’s exchange on the abolition and reintroduction of patents in theNetherlandsled to Levine arguing that Dutch innovators did well in their patentless period, and were forced to reintroduce patents through international pressure.

Castro’s questions on the divergent opinions on the usefulness of patents for pharmaceuticals led to a heated discussion on prescription medicine. Levine argued that medical prescriptions are just another monopoly right that needs to be abolished.

Farrand discussed the feasibility of patent abolition given existing international intellectual property treaties, to which Levine responded that his policy prescription must be seen as a long-term goal. Sartor paid special attention in his question to intellectual property rights in the digital age. In response to Castro’s question relating to reform options for developing countries, Levine conceded that his claim for abolition might be hard to justify in certain constellations. Finally, Wechsler quizzed Levine on his own publishing strategies and the future of academic publishing in a post-copyright world, in response to which Levine presented his vision of open-source and web-based academic journals.

A number of questions from audience members made the workshop very lively. In terms of format, the general feedback from Max Weber Fellows was that this new format should be tried again. In terms of substance, the workshop demonstrated that economic research has not yet produced unequivocal answers as to the need for and viability of intellectual property protection and that normative considerations retain an important role in deciding whether or not to abolish “intellectual monopoly”.