Congress is currently considering legislation that would alter the way patents have been awarded in America for centuries. But with America at the top of the global heap when it comes to innovation in science and technology, why mess with success?
In fact, the recent explosion of American economic and technological progress is in large part due to the old institution of patent protection, which was enshrined by America’s Founding Fathers in the Constitution in order to reward ingenuity and entrepreneurship. It’s therefore puzzling that Congress is looking to tear down the institution most responsible for that success.
The Founding Fathers gave Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” With that power, known today as patent protection, came the authority to protect intellectual property and inventors’ rights to profit from their discoveries. Ever since President Washington signed the first U.S. patent in 1790, this critical provision in the Constitution and the solemn respect with which the U.S. government treats intellectual property have contributed more than any other factors to American economic and technological leadership.
Inventors have invested time and money in these creations knowing that they would have an exclusive period to license them and recoup their investments. Even the Internet, which began as a government tool, has become what it is today because of private innovation and the profit motive. Patents have enabled companies to create thousands of new drugs — from the antibiotic Cipro to the anti-cancer drug Rituxan. In the 1930s, after rediscovering Alexander Fleming’s work on penicillin, scientists faced the seemingly impossible task of mass-producing the world’s first miracle drug. They turned to Pfizer, which applied for a patent and invested millions of dollars devising fermentation technologies to produce penicillin. The company dedicated its resources to finding a method for manufacturing the drug in large quantities, hoping to see a sizable return on its investment. It succeeded and became the world’s largest distributor of penicillin.
The drug — and Pfizer’s investment — saved countless lives during World War II. Some scoff at the profit motive and its role in medical advances. Why should patent-holders make money when their inventions save lives? Indeed, some great inventors heroically refused to apply for patents or profit from their inventions. But their work would never have been possible if not for technologies developed by other inventors, who may have depended on inventions for their livelihood. That’s why patents exist — to uphold the maxim that a laborer is entitled to his wage. It guarantees that future inventions will continue as long as there are creative minds and enough money to help them bring their ideas to fruition. Rather than destroying the patent system that has brought so much prosperity and progress to our lives, Congress ought to pay heed to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and keep the current system in place.
Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a research organization based in Alexandria, Va.