Shane Chen of Portland, Oregon, owns the patent to one of the hottest holiday gifts this season. It is a kind of hoverboard, a small item that keeps its user upright using infrared sensors, gyroscopes, and motors. You have probably seen them all over your city. You might even have been approached by a street seller.
The authorized version — licensed by Chen himself — is being made and distributed by Razor USA. Prices started at $1,000 and up, but competition from cheap knockoffs, selling for as low as $200, has brought the price for the authorized version to $600. Still, there are places online where you can get them for $200. If experience in new products in a guide to the future, in a year, they will be available for less than $100.
And truly, these knock offs are everywhere. Small entrepreneurs are importing them from small manufacturers by the thousands and selling them on the streets. They are making and selling so fast that quality control has been... lax. There are anecdotal reports of explosions and sudden acceleration (parodies on this Saturday night live skit). Amazon has refused to sell many brands.
The patent has proven difficult to enforce. Razor is spending up to $1 million per week to sue unauthorized manufactures. It’s a reminder: it’s never enough just to own the government-granted monopoly rights to produce something. It always costs money to enforce it. You have to investigate. You have to litigate. You have to win. And by the time that day comes, you might have lost vast market share.
If the product is popular enough, the task is essentially hopeless. The resources and time expended on patent enforcement might instead have gone to innovation and marketing toward actually making profits. Enforcing a monopoly isn’t necessarily the same as making money. Indeed, it is the opposite.
The Case of Eli Whitney
The hoverboard saga brings to mind the history of one of the 19th-century’s most famous inventions: the cotton gin. The holder of the patent was Eli Whitney. A year after his graduation from Yale, he designed and constructed an improvement in the cotton gin — a technology that had existed since the ancient world. He obtained the patent on a single feature, a brush-like extension that improved the way the seeds were extracted from the cotton.
According to Boldrin and Levine, Eli and his partner Phineas Miller had dreams of getting rich with a monopoly pricing scheme. They would install their machines throughout the South and ask a royalty of two fifths, payable in ginned cotton. This prospect seriously annoyed farmers throughout the region, understandably.
So it became a common practice for farmers to reverse engineer the innovation — not a difficult thing to do. Rather than lease the Whitney machine, they would just make their own. Does this violate anyone’s rights? Of course not. A design of a contraption is made scarce and “owned” only by legislation. To forcibly prevent farmers from making their own machines is actually an invasion of their rights.
Still, with the prospect of riches dancing in his head, Eli and Phineas set out to sue every farmer who reverse engineered their design. “Whitney and Miller spent a lot of time and money trying to enforce their patent on the cotton gin, but with little success,” write Boldrin and Levine. “Between 1794 and 1807 they went around the South bringing to court everyone in sight, yet received little compensation for their strenuous efforts.”
Meanwhile, the gin led to vast increases in productivity. The cotton industry boomed. But the holders of the patent became ever poorer.
Fortunately, the story ends well. Whitney learned that suing people is less profitable than actually marketing products. His next project was to invent a machine that created interchangeable parts for muskets. Having learned his lesson, he did not seek a patent for his innovation. He just got busy right away and began selling. (His main customer, as it turns out, became the US Army.)
He finally did strike it big. As Boldrin and Levine summarize the lesson: “It was not as a monopolist of the cotton gin, but rather as the competitive manufacturer of muskets that Whitney finally became rich.”
Will Shane Chen Learn the Lesson?
The hoverboard, like the cotton gin, is in enormous demand. All the government power in the world will not prevent hundreds of manufacturers from making them, driving the price down and down until everyone can afford one. That one million per week that Razor is spending on trying to stop copycats is probably better spent on marketing and innovation — actually making and selling stuff rather than trying to prevent others from making and selling stuff.
Absent the government regulation, how can innovators make money? They have the first-mover advantage. This is what provides a period of high profitability before others get in on the act. This is the competitive market at work, inspiring everyone to serve the customer ever more faithfully through lower prices and better products.
Another factor that gives advantage to the innovators is trust. Even now, you can go to the drug store and see name-brand products living alongside store-branded products. Both make money. Both appeal to certain market segments. One producer’s gain does not necessarily come at the expense of other producers, unless the government intervenes.
It is common wisdom to say that the patent system is broken. But what is broken about it? It’s not that the system is abused. It is that it is used at all. Industrial monopolies achieved through government grants of special privileges create waste — and the ongoing lawsuits concerning the hoverboard are a case in point.
Whether it is ginning cotton or zipping around on city sidewalks, a true innovative society encourages as much production and innovation as possible, in service of the masses who love the newest and coolest thing.