There are obviously many factors at work here, including simply being aware of the process of applying for a patent. But if inventors are drawn largely from richer families, to the extent that their inventions are successful, intergenerational mobility will worsen rather than improve.
This is one area where market regulations may be worsening inequality, according to Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles in their new book, The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth and Increase Inequality. They argue that “over-juiced” intellectual property protections, which have expanded copyright and patent rights, are now barriers to both innovation and upward mobility.
Lawsuits by “patent trolls” who “specialize in amassing patent portfolios for the purpose of initiating lawsuits” now make up 62 percent of all infringement suits, at a direct cost of $29 billion in 2011. But there is no clear evidence that stronger patenting protection boosts innovation. After a thorough and balanced review, Lindsey and Teles conclude:
“The copyright and patent laws we have today therefore look more like intellectual monopoly than intellectual property. They do not simply give people their rightful due; on the contrary, they regularly deprive people of their rightful due.”
Politicians will no doubt continue to tout the potential of entrepreneurship and inventiveness as a path to the American Dream. But the growth of ‘weaponized defensive patenting’ identified by Lindsey and Teles suggests that if anything, they have become another means by which that dream is hoarded.