By Wesley D. Markham*

A pdf version of this article may be downloaded here.

I.  Introduction

This paper takes an empirical approach to a policy-based question: how long should patents last in the United States, especially given changes in the international patent law regime?

The overarching, even constitutionalized, policy behind the U.S.’s patent system is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.[FN1] This is a laudable goal, but the devil is in the details.  Utilizing an intellectual property regime to maximize innovation requires a delicate balancing act.  On the one hand, inventors and the firms for which they work need an incentive to innovate.  In the United States, one such incentive is a limited monopoly in the form of patents for new and useful inventions.  On the other hand, every patent takes something away from the public domain, thereby making it more difficult for others to build on prior discoveries.  In other words, patents both encourage and discourage innovation.  The key to a successful patent system is determining the correct balancing point, i.e., the smallest reward necessary to spur inventors to invent.