Press release
July 1, 2009

Study Finds Patent Systems May Not Be An Effective Incentive To Encourage New Technologies

Sherry L. K. Main

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Kansas have found evidence that patent systems do not promote the progress of “useful arts” as defined by the U.S. Constitution

photo: bill tomlinson


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photo: andrew torrance


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A new study published in The Columbia Science and Technology Law Review challenges the traditional view that patents foster innovation, suggesting instead that patents may harm new technology, economic activity, and societal wealth. These results may have important policy implications because many countries count on patent systems to spur new technology and promote economic growth.

To test the hypothesis that patent systems promote technological innovation, Bill Tomlinson of UC Irvine's Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, and Andrew Torrance of the University of Kansas School of Law, developed an online simulation game of the patent system, PatentSim. Their results suggest that a patent system underperforms a "commons," in which no patent protection is available, on several important measures.

Although these surprising results call into question traditional justifications for patent systems, they do align with the increasingly well-supported notion that user and open innovation can succeed where patents may fail.

PatentSim uses an abstract model of the innovation process, a database of potential innovations, and a network over which users may interact with one another to license, assign, buy, infringe and enforce patents.

PatentSim allows users to simulate the innovation process in one of three scenarios: a patent system, a “commons” system with no patents, or a system with both patents and open source protection.

“In PatentSim, we found that the patent system did not work to spur innovation,” says Tomlinson. “In fact, participants were more likely to innovate when there was no intellectual property protection at all, or when they could open source their innovations and share them with other people.”

The researchers measured the efficacy of the patent system based on 1) innovation – the number of unique inventions; 2) productivity – a measure of economic activity; and 3) societal wealth – the ability to generate money.

The subjects of the simulation game were first-year law students who had never had any intellectual property coursework. Torrance and Tomlinson have plans to conduct further simulations with subjects of different backgrounds, including MBA students at Harvard.

“Current patent laws are based on assumptions that patents spur technological progress that were considered settled more than a century ago, and that few have questioned since then,” says Torrance. “If it turns out that our laws are based upon misinformation and bad assumptions, society may be failing to promote beneficial new technologies that could improve potential quality of life.”

The full paper, “Patents and the Regress of Useful Arts,” is currently ranked in the top ten recently uploaded publications in Law & Economics on the Social Science Research Network Web site, the leading social sciences scholarly publication database, and is available for free download at the following URL:

Bill Tomlinson is an Associate Professor in the Informatics Department of the Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and a researcher in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). Tomlinson received his Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences from The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tomlinson's research deals with the social impacts of information technologies, in particular regarding environmental issues and interactive education systems. His previous contributions to informatics and computer science are significant in human-computer interaction, interactive animation, autonomous agents, and multi-device systems.

Andrew W. Torrance is an Associate Professor at the University of Kansas School of Law and a Research Associate at the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. Torrance received his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University and his J.D. from Harvard Law School. His research interests include intellectual property, patent law, innovation law, biotechnology, biolaw, food and drug law, biodiversity law, climate change law, and international environmental law. He teaches classes in intellectual property law, patent law, food and drug law, and biodiversity law.

About the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences: The Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences is the first independent computer science school within the UC system and one of the fastest-growing programs of its kind in the nation. Elevated from department to school status in December 2002, information and computer sciences at UCI is an academic community of more than 1,500 students, more than 100 full-time faculty and staff, and approximately 6,500 alumni worldwide. With experts in areas ranging from embedded computer systems and networking to bioinformatics and the social impacts of computing, the school ranks 15th among all public university computer science graduate programs, according to U.S. News & World Report.

About the University of California, Irvine: The University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 27,000 undergraduate and graduate students and nearly 2,000 faculty members. The third-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3.6 billion. For more UCI news, visit

News Radio: UCI maintains on campus an ISDN line for conducting interviews with its faculty and experts. The use of this line is available free-of-charge to radio news programs/stations who wish to interview UCI faculty and experts. Use of the ISDN line is subject to availability and approval by the university.

About the University of Kansas School of Law: The University of Kansas School of Law offers a rich curriculum, a collegial learning environment, a dedicated and accessible faculty whose scholarship and expertise span a broad range of legal subjects, and a diverse and active student body. Approximately 500 students attend KU Law each year, taking courses from more than 40 faculty members in pursuit of the J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree, Two-Year J.D. for Foreign-Trained Lawyers, Elder Law LL.M. (Master of Laws), and S.J.D. (Doctor of Juridical Science). KU Law offers 11 joint degrees, 11 clinics and externships, and six certificate programs. Located in Lawrence, Kansas, the law school is part of the University of Kansas, an international research and teaching university that, like the University of California, Irvine, is one of 34 public members of the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Media interested in interviewing ICS faculty, students or alumni should contact Matt Miller at (949) 824-1562 or via email at