Visibility of Technology and Cumulative Innovation: Evidence from Trade Secrets Laws

Bernhard Ganglmair (ZEW, MaCCI, University of Mannheim)
Imke Reimers (Northeastern University)

Abstract: Patents grant an inventor temporary monopoly rights in exchange for the disclosure of the patented invention. However, if only those inventions that are otherwise already visible are patented (and others kept secret), then the bargain fails. We use exogenous variation in the strength of trade secrets protection from the Uniform Trade Secrets Act to show that a relative weakening of patents (compared to trade secrets) adversely affects patenting of processes more than that of products. Arguing that processes are on average less visible (or self-disclosing) than products, stronger trade secrets have thus a disproportionately negative effect on the disclosure of inventions that are not otherwise visible to society. We develop a structural model of initial and follow-on innovation to determine the effects of such a shift in disclosure on overall welfare in industries characterized by cumulative innovation. In counterfactual analyses, we find that while stronger trade secrets encourage more investment in R&D, they may have negative effects on overall welfare - the result of a significant decline in follow-on innovation. This is especially the case in industries with relatively profitable R&D.

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