Inequalities, Innovation, and Patents

Intellectual Property and Patents

Article Snapshot


Colleen Chien


Santa Clara University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-03, 2018


The benefits of innovation are not distributed equally. The patent system is intended to maximize innovation and supports equality of opportunity, but does not consistently redistribute the benefits of innovation.

Policy Relevance

Changes to the patent system should better support innovation equality.

Main Points

  • Some assert that levels of consumption matter, rather than income inequality; however, relatively less income means less income to consume, and extreme inequality leads to instability and polarization.
  • Types of inequality related to innovation include:
    • Inequality of wealth and income (economic inequality);
    • Inequality of opportunity (innovation producer inequality);
    • Inequality of access to innovation (innovation consumption inequality).
  • In innovation, equality of opportunity is essential, but some economic inequality supports innovation; the rich underwrite innovations the benefits of which eventually spread to all, and inequality leads to a desire to “get ahead.”
  • Digital technologies benefit many geographic areas and many economic groups, but other innovation goods have differential reach.
    • Uterine fibroids afflict more black women than white women, but have received little research attention.
    • Artificial intelligence will have different effects on skilled and unskilled workers.
  • Equality of opportunity stands out as the principle that best supports both the goal of wealth maximization and distributional aims.
  • Patents alleviate inequality in several ways.
    • Patents foster entry and growth, reducing economic inequality.
    • Patents give newcomers access to the technological knowledge of incumbents.
    • Patents support the widespread dissemination of new products and services.
  • Patents intensify inequality in several ways.
    • Patents enhance returns to human capital, such as education.
    • Lobbyists and patent lawyers discourage competition and support the transfer of public wealth to private coffers.
    • The patent system has been shaped by discrimination.
  • Studies show that discrimination continues to shape innovation.
    • Talented female, Hispanic, and Black students are less likely to become inventors than white or Asian males.
    • Female inventors with feminine names have less chance of having their patent granted than those with androgynous names.
    • Many Black, LatinX, and women leave tech jobs because of bias, bullying, and harassment.
  • The patent system should become a many-winner system rather than a winner-take-all system.
    • Better metrics should be developed to measure innovation equality.
    • The patent bar should be diversified by relaxing the technical degree requirement.
    • Policymakers should increase funding of research affecting underrepresented groups.

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