'Inventiveness is good. It should be rewarded. Monopoly power, by contrast, is bad. It should be discouraged. So what does the patent system do? It rewards inventiveness with a licence to monopolize. That's nuts.'
So says maverick economist, Steven E Landsburg, in More Sex is Safer Sex (yes it's an economics book!) But mainstream economists have no such difficulties with IP – see the current discussion on the IP blogsite ipkittenblogspot.com. So what exactly is the economic justification for IP? IP creates monopolies. Yet economists are untroubled by this, certainly when it comes to patents and copyright. There are various theories. There's the awfully-named 'Labour-Deserve' theory, which says you're entitled to be rewarded for your efforts (deep stuff!). There's the 'Social Contract' theory, which recognises that society must offer incentives to innovate, and that it must be prepared to offer inventors and creatives a limited monopoly in return for the benefits that we get from their efforts, be it a new medicine or a great book. And then there's the theory that must have been named by bean counters, the 'Cost/ Benefit' theory – this says that, although there may be a cost in having to pay inflated prices for a period, the benefit of the use of the invention or creation (which, of course, eventually falls into the public domain) outweighs that cost.
But what of trade marks? Where's the labour? The innovation? What about Cost/Benefit? Is there a social benefit, something that goes beyond the benefit that the trade mark owner gets from the (potentially permanent) exclusive use of a name? Indeed, argue some who specialise in the dismal science, the benefit to society lies in the information that's conveyed by the mark – a trade mark gives you information about the product and distinguishes it from the competition, saving you (the consumer) from having to do research (true, if you want a rubbish eating experience, the McDonalds trade mark saves you the bother of having to make enquiries about where this is to be found!) Trade marks also fulfil a social function, in that we can infer things about a person from the brands they use (true, you see someone with a Beemer or a Breitling and you're immediately thinking: 'What a ....!'). As for the cost, we're told that this is limited to the negligible cost of running an IP registration system. Mmmm! The theory's a little less convincing with trade marks than it is with patents and copyright. Which may just be why some people query whether trade marks are really intellectual property.
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