Calibrating Patent Lifetimes

46 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2010

See all articles by Eric E. Johnson

Eric E. Johnson

University of Oklahoma College of Law

Date Written: 2006


The patent system could better achieve its primary mission of incentivizing technological innovation by moving away from the one-size-fits-all 20-year term for patents and moving to a system of varying durations for different categories of invention. The current patent duration is arbitrary, the result of entrenched historical accident. Allowing upward variance from the 20-year term in discrete categories of invention offers the prospect of boosting innovation in impoverished technological sectors. Allowing downward variance in other categories would benefit overall social welfare by removing needless technological monopolization and associated deadweight loss.

Current economic models and available economic data do not allow for the academic calculation of optimal patent lifetimes in the real world. This paper proposes practical procedural mechanisms to gather and synthesize information about innovation incentives and returns, and to make use of that information in decision-making paradigms that would vary patent terms to make the patent system more economically beneficial than it currently is. An appendix to this paper uses theoretical evolutionary biology to criticize economic theorists who have suggested that very long or even infinite durations for patents may be optimal.

Keywords: patent, patents, intellectual property, innovation, invention, duration, terms, economics

JEL Classification: D60, E60, 030, 031, 034, H41

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Eric E., Calibrating Patent Lifetimes (2006). Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Eric E. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of Oklahoma College of Law ( email )

300 Timberdell Road
Norman, OK 73019
United States

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