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Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants: Cumulative Research And The Patent Law

Suzanne Scotchmer

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Most innovators stand on the shoulders of giants, and never more so than in the current evolution of high technologies, where almost all technical progress builds on a foundation provided by earlier innovators. Most economics literature on patenting and patent races has looked at innovations in isolation, without focusing on the externalities or spillovers that early innovators confer on later innovators. But the cumulative nature of research poses problems for the optimal design of patent law that are not addressed by that perspective. The challenge is to reward early innovators fully for the technological foundation they provide to later innovators, but to reward later innovators adequately for their improvements and new products as well. This paper investigates the use of patent protection and cooperative agreements among firms to protect incentives for cumulative research.