The Myth of the Software Patent Thicket: An Empirical Investigation of the Relationship Between Intellectual Property and Innovation in Software Firms (link)

March 30, 2004

29 Mar 2004

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This paper is the first part of a wide-ranging study of the role of intellectual property in the software industry. The project focuses on the software industry because of the importance of that industry to the modern economy, because of the importance of innovation to that industry, and because of the well-known difficulties of accommodating traditional intellectual-property regimes (patent, copyright, and trade secret) to innovation in the industry.

This paper focuses on innovation in the hundreds of small venture-backed firms that form the bulk of the population of the industry. After a brief description of the history of the industry in Part II, Part III discusses the evidence on which the paper relies: a set of about 50 interviews of industry executives - diversified geographically, by size of company, and by role in the industry (software developers, venture capitalists, lenders, etc.). Relying on those interviews, the paper provides a detailed explication of the role that intellectual property plays in the industry.

Parts IV through VI of the paper organize the information from the interviews and situate it in the extensive literatures on venture capital investing, the economics of innovation, and patents. The first substantive topic of the paper (Part IV) is the features of startup firms that attract investment by venture capitalists - generally something about the startup that suggests a sustainable differentiation of the firm from its competitors.

The second substantive part of the paper (Part V) discusses the role of copyright. The major point of this part is that copyright protection is of little value to startup firms. Copyright protection is designed to protect expression, and not functionality. Thus, it provides little of the protection for which venture investors are looking. On the other hand, copyright protection does provide important protections in other areas, most obviously in protecting the later-stage firm's products from piracy. Generally, this part of the paper tells a story of unsuccessful efforts to stretch the copyright regime to do something it never was intended to do.

The final substantive part of the paper (Part VI) discusses the role of patents. Because patents do protect functionality, they have at least the theoretical potential to provide the sustainable differentiation for which investors are looking. The problem, however, is that in many sectors of the software industry innovation is not of a character that a typical patent can protect a firm from competitors: often competitors would be able to design a competing product that works around a firm's patent. Thus, despite significant increases in patenting in the industry, about 80% of venture-backed software firms do not obtain patents during the early years of their existence. The question, then, is what benefits patents do provide to those firms. This part explores several benefits, including the classic benefit of excluding competitors. In this industry at least, that benefit accrues primarily to small firms, protecting them from the competitive depredations of incumbents. Incumbents, by contrast, rarely use patents to exclude smaller firms from the industry. The part also discusses a series of less conventional benefits small firms gain from software patents: as barter in cross-licensing arrangements, in signaling their technical competence to third parties, in converting tacit knowledge into a verifiable and transferable form, and in making the firm attractive to potential acquirers.

The paper closes by discussing the implications of the patent analysis for recent debates about the value of patents in the software industry. The paper presents evidence about existing practices in the industry suggests that technology in fact is readily available, rebutting the prominent claims of a patent thicket that is supposedly stifling innovation in the industry. On the contrary, I argue, to the extent patents have an important effect in the industry, it is an effect that inures primarily to the benefit of the smaller firms trying to find a foothold from which they can compete.

University of Texas at Austin - School of Law
February 2004
U of Texas Law and Economics Research Paper No. 022

Social Science Research Network Electronic Library
Item source: bstract_id=510103

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