October 2018, Dean Baker
This paper raises three issues on the relationship between intellectual property and inequality. The first is a simple logical point. Patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property are public policy. They are not facts given to us by the world or the structure of technology somehow. While this point should be self-evident, it is rarely noted in discussions of inequality or ways to address it.
The second issue is that there is an enormous amount of money at stake with intellectual property rules. Many items that sell at high prices as a result of patent or copyright protection would be free or nearly free in the absence of these government granted monopolies. Perhaps the most notable example is prescription drugs where we will spend over $420 billion in 2018 in the United States for drugs that would almost certainly cost less than $105 billion in a free market. The difference is $315 billion annually or 1.6 percent of GDP. If we add in software, medical equipment, pesticides, fertilizer, and other areas where these protections account for a large percentage of the cost, the gap between protected prices and free market prices likely approaches $1 trillion annually, a sum that is more than 60 percent of after-tax corporate profits.
The third issue is that the effect of these protections is to redistribute income upward. This can be seen most easily in looking at the origins of the fortunes of some of the country’s richest people, starting with Bill Gates. It also is apparent from looking at the leading companies in terms of market capitalization and profits, starting with Apple.