Monday, 13 May 2013

Dig in, or push on?

In my post (May 10) on recent interesting non-fiction titles, I recommended Alex Stone's book on magic. I was only partway into it at the time, and hadn't reached page 147, where Stone (who'd at that point got into trouble with the magicians' professional authorities by supposedly giving away secrets of the trade to the public), says, partly in his own defence but also more generally
 "I don't think that it's any coincidence that the golden age of stage magic was also the golden age of exposures [publicising how tricks work], because exposure drives innovation. Much in the way that market-oriented competition among businesses fosters economic growth by forcing companies to evolve, exposure compels magicians to modernise their acts and invent new material. Secrecy, meanwhile, is a license to be lazy. Like monopolies in the marketplace  it breeds stagnation".
Stone's not an economist (he's been a PhD physics student, professional magician, and author), but can spot the essence of why and how many markets work. It's obvious to him that innovation-driven competition is what makes us all better off. It's even, as Stone notes, in the long-run interests of the incumbent firms themselves.

That's not, of course, how incumbent firms tend to view it. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, in a recent scathing  article for Project Syndicate, has written about how (in his view) one US company is not only pushing the bounds of over-aggressive defence of its patent rights - it's gone all the way to the US Supreme Court - but also deliberately impeding the development of alternatives to its technology. His conclusion is that "unbalanced intellectual-property regimes result in inefficiencies—including monopoly profits and a failure to maximize the use of knowledge—that impede the pace of innovation", and argues that America's intellectual property regime is indeed unbalanced, over-favouring the possessors of today's technology. While you're at it, if you haven't come across it before, have a fossick around the Project Syndicate site, it's well worth it.

Finally, if you really want to see blatant protectionism of threatened incumbents, from this morning's edition of the excellent Slate, here's a specially appalling example.

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