Prize above patents?

IP is only one policy to incentise innovation.  Other popular ways include patronage (e.g. government or private funding of research) and, the subject of this post, prizes. Innovation prizes (a.k. inducement prizes) offer another means to encourage investment in innovation and to reward innovators for the fruits of their efforts.
Champagne, champagne for troops!
Prizes were more popular in the past, when governments and private organisations used them to encourage innovation in particular areas.  Our modern food preservation systems stem from an innovation prize.  In 1795, Napoleon offered 12,000 francs for a food preservation method that could be used to feed his armies.  Nicolas Appert, a Parisian confectioner and distiller, invented a solution which involved boiling food in closed champagne bottles.  Now, eight out of ten cats say their owners prefer tinned, as opposed to corked, food.

In the UK, Parliament offered a prize in 1714 to solve a major problem in maritime navigation.  The Longitude prize offered inventors of a means to calculate a ship's longitude up to £20,000.  The solution was essentially a clock which kept London time and allowed navigators to calculate longitude from there.  The innovation reduced shipwrecks and spurred subsequent innovation.

More recently, the United States has made moves to allow government departments to fund similar prizes. As part of the 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, the US government called for its agencies to use prizes as a means to encourage innovation. In the UK, Nesta (a.k.a. as the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) launched the Centre for Challenge Prizes in April 2012.

How do prizes compare to IP as an incentive to innovate?  On the plus side, they potentially reduce the costs of litigation associated with IP infringement.  Additionally, prizes are less likely to incumber subsequent or cumulative innovations as the prize-winning innovation should be freely available.  If the winning innovation is unrestricted by rights holders, it is less likely to block further innovation and the free flow of information may lead to innovation elsewhere.  The lack of monopoly rights over the innovation also reduces the deadweight loss associated with IP. However, on the negative side, the competition associated with prizes will almost certainly encourage duplication of efforts.  Yet this duplication of efforts is also seen in patent races.

Won't get out of bed for less than £10M
Another challenge is the implementation of such prizes.  Sponsors of such prizes may have incomplete information about the innovations which could lead to poor prize design.  The prize money itself is also difficult to determine as the risk is that the prize will over or under reward successful innovators.  One way to mitigate this is allow prize winners to chose between prize money or a patent.  If the prize money is less than value of the innovation to the winner, then the winner will chose the patent.

This wouldn't be a Katonomics post without a look at what the evidence suggests.  In one of those really-cool-pieces-of-research-you-wish-you'd-thought-of, Liam Brunt, Josh Lerner, and Tom Nicholas, look at a century of prize competitions by the Royal Agriculture Society of England.  They find that winners of the awards went on to patent more and, interestingly, competitors who did not win also went on to patent more.  This suggests that the prize system encourages wider innovation than just the competition-specific innovation. They also find that the prestige of the prize was often more important than the cash prizes.   Another key point is that such prizes can encourage significant investment in R&D.  The X-Prize for space flight had an award of USD$10M but generated over USD$100M in investment.

While innovation prizes are unlikely to replace the IP system, they could serve as a complement to existing incentives to innovate.  And as we know, the IPKat has used a similar method to solicit innovation on the part of readers.
Prize above patents? Prize above patents? Reviewed by Nicola Searle on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. "While innovation prizes are unlikely to replace the IP system"

    Given the current enforcement regime, and the enthusiasm for destroy market incentives, they will soon be the only incentive on offer, alongside corporate sponsorship, state subsidy and charity.

  2. Patents and prizes co-exist and are certainly not mutually exclusive. Prizes are simply useful for focusing effort on a specific problem. The Bill and Melinda Reinvent the Toilet programme is a brilliant example and they are not offering prizes but grants so its even better.
    They are not aiming to publish too early and leave the patenting decision up to contributors. The FAQ say "In general, the grantees will own the rights to any technologies they invent. They are, however, required to manage these rights in such a way as to ensure Global Access. Global Access requires that (a) the knowledge and information gained from a funded project be
    promptly and broadly disseminated, and (b) the technologies be made available and accessible at reasonable cost to our intended beneficiaries. Global Access obligations are a condition of receiving a grant."

  3. Another potential benefit of prizes is that they can be targeted by the donor towards innovation in areas that might increase the common good but not be commercially attractive to research companies forced to recoup their costs through the sale of patented products. One example would be cures for diseases that are most prevalent in developing countries.

  4. What about the EPO's Inventor of the Year Award. Is it also a prize or simply PR for the EPO?


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