Policy ForumIntellectual Property

Disclosing patents' secrets

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Science  16 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6219, pp. 236-237
DOI: 10.1126/science.1262080

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The patent system is built on a grand bargain: To gain exclusive rights to practice their inventions, inventors must disclose their proprietary knowledge publicly. Economists have studied incentive benefits of exclusivity while implicitly assuming that disclosure of know-how in patent applications is costly for inventors. Yet, apart from facilitating diffusion of knowledge, disclosing know-how in a patent may privately benefit inventors by deterring rivals' duplicative research and development (R&D), preempting competitors' efforts to patent similar technology, and reducing informational asymmetries between patentees and potential investors [supplementary materials (SM)]. Understanding to what extent disclosure is viewed as a cost or a benefit by patenting inventors provides insights into our complex patent system and allows better policy-making to advance the diffusion of technical knowledge.