(p. 264) Petra Moser, now a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, spent four years examining more than 15,000 different inventions exhibited at nineteenth-century worlds fairs, and their equivalents, and discovered a fact that seems at first glance to discredit the idea that patent protection was essential for innovation: Nations without patent laws were in many cases just as inventive as those with them. Or even more inventive; some of the nations best represented at those industrial fairs actively discouraged the patenting of inventions.
The reason seems to be that whether or not they enforced a patent law, smaller nations or domains, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, were vulnerable to the theft of their innovations by competitors in larger nations. The bargain of patent protection runs two ways: The state, in return for making an idea public, offers legal recourse to its creator should someone within the state steal the idea. Since making one’s invention public in a nation with patent protection offered protection against theft only up to its own borders, only a large nation offered a large enough market to make the deal a good one, and (in Moser’s words) the small nations “would have been silly to patent [their] innovations.”
This logic inhibited investment in entire categories of innovation. Those nations that relied on secrecy rather than patent tended to specialize in the sort of inventions that cannot be easily reverse–engineered, such as chemicals or dyes.
Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: italics and bracketed word in original.)