Can you imaging inventing something new and refusing to patent it? We game theorists are a greedy lot. While not doing anything actually illegal, we show no mercy when it comes to an opportunity to make lots of money. In this latest nefarious article, I am going to demonstrate how it is in your best interests to keep silent about your latest invention when it suits you.
First we must understand a key concept in game theory called a “holdup.” A holdup is a situation where you are able to demand almost any amount of money from a person because they have no choice but to pay you or suffer incredible losses. This isn’t just restricted to extorting money at a petrol bunk. Holdups are frequently seen in businesses.
For example, suppose all the pilots in a particular airline decide that they’re not getting paid enough. All they have to do is to go on a collective strike and ask for a 300% raise. Assuming that there are very few pilots around, such a strike will have a compelling power. The reason is twofold. First of all, being a pilot is a specialized skill. And second, the cost of paying a pilot is minimal compared to the cost of maintaining an airplane. So if the airline stops operating because of the pilot strike, they can hardly save any money by not paying the pilots since their fixed costs on machines, etc., is sky high anyway. The pilots are trying to “holdup” the airline company.
Image Credit: Ismael Olea
In fact, the threat is so real, that certain governments have imposed rules on how long skilled labor such as pilots can go on strike.
Such a strike would not work in McDonald’s for the reasons mentioned. The labor is pretty unskilled, and a strike would hurt McDonald’s much less since McDonald’s would save on employee fees which are pretty high. So if the employees threaten to strike (remember that the more people who strike, the more difficult it is to maintain the strike since a strike is like a cartel), McDonald’s would simply fire them and hire more workers since they are easy to replace. Thus, an attempted “holdup” of McDonald’s would not succeed.
Patent law gives inventors the potential to holdup companies that rely on the patent. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a patent on the technology used to create integrated circuits (IC)? Every single chip company in the world would pay me money, and I would be a rich man with no worries (financially at least).
But suppose I’m a manufacturing company, and I have several ways to manufacture a particular product. I must check beforehand whether any of the steps involved in a particular method have a patent on them. If they do, then I must either come to an agreement with the patent holder to pay her a reasonable sum of money before I Invest heavily into it or choose another method.
If I’m foolish enough to blindly set up my manufacturing plant in a way that utilized a method that has a patent on it, the patent holder can holdup my firm. They can demand outrageous fees for allowing me to utilize that method since it will cost me millions of dollars to set up a new plant that avoids that step.
But suppose I do the research beforehand and find that no one holds a patent for a particular step, and I build my factory around it. After this, a clever inventor reveals that he has just now got a patent for a particular method that my plant utilizes, and I’m screwed. The crafty inventor had purposely delayed his patent on that technique so that when I did a check, nothing showed up. Now after my plant is complete, he has completed the process and obtained a patent. He is now in a position to hold up my firm.
So if you’re thinking of obtaining a patent, it is worthwhile for you to hold off a little bit and wait till a firm invests heavily into a product or process which utilizes your invention. Then you must strike and obtain a patent and keep holding up the hapless firm! I can well imagine professionals having dozens of unpatented inventions, keeping a keen lookout for an opportunity to pounce on a company that will utilize one of their inventions.
Yes, we game theorists are crafty. Nothing wrong in that, is there?