Is IP Necessary?

by F.

Hal Varian, one of my intellectual idols, has a nice piece in the NYT summarizing some research on the fashion industry, which seems to do pretty well without IP:

The legal motivation for patents and copyright is written into the United States Constitution: to promote the progress of science and useful arts. By granting innovators an exclusive right to their writings and discoveries, Congress provided a strong incentive to engage in innovation. As Abraham Lincoln put it, the patent system added “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

But intellectual property law is not the only way to provide such incentives. Ideas, for example, cannot be patented. Yet university professors churn out hundreds of thousands of publications each year that are full of ideas, both good and bad. The social norms in academia, among them citation requirements and plagiarism taboos, seem to work pretty well.

Another industry that seems to get along well without intellectual property protection is the fashion industry. Brand names and logos are protected by trademark, but the design of clothing is generally not protected in the United States.

Recently, two law professors, Kal Raustiala of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Chris Sprigman of the University of Virginia, wrote a fascinating paper that outlines the workings of the fashion industry and how it manages to function without much intellectual property protection.