Innovation Without Patents

25 September 2007 at 12:50 pm 3 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

While public policy-makers (and students) exalt patents, scholars in strategic management and innovation studies tend to take a much more balanced view. They know that the use of patents tend to concentrate in relatively few industries, and that in many cases alternative mechanisms are superior means of appropriating rent streams from innovations (e.g., this paper). Of course, libertarians, including libertarian economists, have long harbored skepticism towards the patent system, including skepticism based on efficiency arguments. Now economic historians seem to add to patenting skepticism. 

Below is a Call for Papers for a session on “Innovation Without Patents,” the purpose of which is to “shed light on the significance and historical fortunes of inventive activities not covered by patents, in different contexts, during the early phases of industrialization.” The proposal deadline is fairly generous: June 30, 2008.

XVth World Economic History Congress
(Utrecht, August 3-7,2009)

Call for papers for a session on

Innovation without patents
(XVIII-XIX centuries)

Organizers: Christine MacLeod (University of Bristol, UK)
Liliane Hilaire-Perez (CNAM, Paris, France)
Alessandro Nuvolari (Eindhoven University of Technology, the

Recent research in economic history has paid increasing attention to the
transformation of institutional frameworks supporting innovative activities during
the early phases of industrialisation. In particular, most contributions in this field
have attempted to discover the relationship between the emergence of modern
patent systems and the rate and direction of technological change in different

One of the findings of this literature has been that a sizable volume of inventive
activities was undertaken outside the coverage of the patent system. In fact,
patent systems were only one of the institutions supporting the generation of
innovations in this historical phase. In specific circumstances, prizes and other
public awards were rather successfully used for promoting innovations. In other
circumstances, inventors and entrepreneurs preferred to follow innovation
strategies that did not rely on patents, but on secrecy or on other alternative
appropriation mechanisms. Finally, in some specific instances, the literature has
also shown the importance of “collective invention”. This means that inventors did
not take patents, but they freely disclosed their inventions to one another (or
might have been obliged to do so, by institutions like guilds). As a result of this
sharing of knowledge, during the nineteenth century technologies such as blast
furnaces and steam pumping engines exhibited very fast rates of technical
change, as well as the Jacquard loom in France, an outcome of guild policy of

The aim of this session is to shed light on the significance and historical fortunes
of inventive activities not covered by patents, in different contexts, during the
early phases of industrialisation. The programme of the session will include two
lead papers given by Petra Moser (Stanford University) and Robert C. Allen
(Nuffield College, University of Oxford)

The organizers welcome suggestions and proposals for papers to be presented at
the session. If you are interested in giving a paper, please send your proposal
(max 1,000 words) to all three organizers. Proposals should be sent to the
organizers before June 30, 2008. We would like especially to encourage
contributions from young scholars (PhD students in the last stages of their thesis
or scholars that have recently completed their PHD). We are currently considering
the possibility for organizing a pre-session workshop (open also to some
theoretical contributions and/or papers dealing with contemporary cases of
innovation outside the patent system) to be held in early 2009.

Paper proposals should be sent to
Please indicate in the subject “WEHC 2009 Innovation w. Patents”.

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Myths and Realities.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. En kommentar af de helt korte « Verden fra min altan  |  25 September 2007 at 3:09 pm

    […] Jeg er lidt forundret […]

  • 2. srp  |  25 September 2007 at 8:04 pm

    Interestingly, as the spread of technology makes replication faster and easier, the fashion people are now arguing that they need some sort of IP protection. It used to be knock-offs didn’t get to the stores until weeks or months later; now they hit the stores before the originals do. So as the non-legal barriers to imitation fall, the call for legal barriers increases.

    Which I guess is why the seeming contradicition of our age:–invention of technology to speed information transfer coinciding with the invention of new means to restrict information transer–is not a contradiction at all.

  • 3. links for 2007-09-26 at Jacob Christensen  |  26 September 2007 at 7:21 am

    […] Organizations and Markets – Innovation Without Patents (tags: research economics law patents innovation) […]

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