The Debt Burden and the Burden of Copyright and Patent Monopolies

The debt whiners are out in full force these days as we face the risk of default at the start of next month. We hear them complain endlessly about the burden we are imposing on future generations. If we imagine for a moment that any of these people actually care about the future (anyone hear of global warming?), we should ask why none of them ever says anything about the burden of patent and copyright monopolies?

This may be too simple for great minds, but the granting of patent and copyright monopolies is a mechanism that the government uses to pay for innovation and creative work. It is an alternative to direct government spending. The government could directly pay companies for innovating and producing movies, writing books, and performing music, but instead it gives these companies monopolies that allow them to charge far more than the free market price for the duration of a patent or copyright.

In the case of prescription drugs, pharmaceutical companies will often charge ten or even 100 times the free market price of a drug for the period in which it holds a patent monopoly. This means that a drug that might sell for $10-$20 a prescription, instead sells for hundreds or thousands of dollars per prescription. There is a similar story with a wide range of other items, like medical equipment, seed, fertilizers, and pesticide. Patent monopolies make items expensive, that would otherwise be cheap.

The same is true of copyright. We could costlessly copy and transfer books, music, movies, software and many other types of creative work over the web, if it were not for the copyright monopolies granted by the government.

We can debate the merits of patents and copyrights as government mechanisms for financing innovation and creative work, but we can’t deny that they impose a large cost. Arguably, the higher prices we pay as a result of these monopolies comes to over $1 trillion a year, close to half of all after-tax corporate profits.

In the case of prescription drugs alone, patent monopolies and related protections will likely cost us over $400 billion this year. We will spend over $550 billion for drugs that would probably cost us less than $100 billion in a free market without government granted patent monopolies (National Income and Product Accounts, Table 2.4.5U, Line 121). By contrast, we are projected to spend $663 billion in interest payments on the debt. If we added in the higher costs due to patent and copyright monopolies on other items, it would almost certainly dwarf the interest payments on the debt.

It is bizarre that people who endlessly obsess about the burden of the debt literally never talk about the burdens created by government-granted patent and copyright monopolies. This failure to address this massive burden created by government policy might cause one to question the sincerity of their concern about the burden of the debt.

This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.  

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.