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Innovation and Incentives: The Patent System of the Netherlands, 1817-1869.

Patentless invention: The economic effects of the abolition and re-introduction of patents in the Netherlands


Outline, including interdisciplinary dimension

The conventional economic argument (see e.g. Scotchmer, 2004) is that patent protection can be socially beneficial because: (1) it incentivises invention in areas where there would otherwise be few rewards for inventors; and (2) it aids in the dissemination of ideas and combats secrecy.

Between 1869 and 1912, inventors in the Netherlands enjoyed no legal protection for their inventions. Yet this was precisely the period in which the country experienced its Industrial Revolution, having largely missed the first one. The Dutch case is a very useful quasi-natural experiment with which to explore the two economic arguments for patent protection and the popular Boldrin & Levine (2008) critique thereof. Tracking the political and intellectual debates surrounding the abolition and subsequent re-introduction of patent protection will facilitate a better understanding of the drivers of the Netherlands’ peculiar patentless past. Using data from industrial prizes, a system of rewarding inventors that co-existed with patents and continued after patents were abolished, this research project will explore the direction and success of Dutch industry under two very different legal regimes. Tracking how Dutch inventors use foreign patent systems to protect their ideas abroad - ideas that they could not protect in their domestic market - will help to explain the origins and performance of Dutch multinational businesses such as Philips.

This project potentially has important policy implications. The number and complexity of court cases on patent infringements has recently been growing exponentially. Patent systems across the world are under pressure from various lobbyists to either broaden or restrict rights. Innovation prizes are often mooted as a potential policy solution. The historical antecedents to all these issues can be found in the Dutch case. By using economics and legal scholarship together, this project has the potential to yield new insights.

Key words/descriptors

law and economics, economic history, patent law, innovation and incentives

First supervisor

Dr Chris Colvin - Queen's Business School

Secondary supervisor from a complementary discipline

Professor Norma Dawson - School of Law

Supervisors’ track record of PhD completions, plus excellence and international standing in the project area

Colvin, an economist and economic historian, currently supervises 3 PhD students in the field of economic history and is the Postgraduate Research Coordinator for the Management School.

He has publications in top economic history journals on topics relating to the Netherlands and has co-authors based there. He previously worked on the economics of intellectual property law when he was a government economist at the Office of Fair Trading.

Dawson, a legal historian and intellectual property law academic, has a proven track record of PhD completions in the field of intellectual property law and legal history, including a student who researched 19th-century patent law. She has published widely in legal history and is well networked with academics working on IP law in the Netherlands.


Intersectoral exposure and/or international mobility

(e.g. secondments to/collaboration with partner organizations)

Both first and second supervisors have strong existing connections and collaborations with academics based in the Netherlands.

Part of the PhD would be spent as a visiting student in the Netherlands, likely at the History Department of the University of Amsterdam. The student would use this as a base from which archival research in the Netherlands can be carried out.

Describe briefly the international profile of the partner

The University of Amsterdam hosts a special chair in business history, whose current occupant is Joost Jonker, an internationally-renowned business historian. Jonker also has an affiliation with the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, which houses the Netherlands' most significant archival collection of economic and business history materials. Jonker's guidance on primary source materials will be invaluable to the success of this project.

Training that will be provided through the research project itself

Depending on the profile of the applicant, doctoral training in either law or economics can be provided in-house at Queen's. Especially important will be training on patent law and industrial economics, on archival research skills, and on the statistical analysis of large datasets.

The Graduate School at Queen's provides a forum for interdisciplinary collaborations between PhD students in different schools.

Support for language will be provided for non-Dutch speakers.

Examples of additional training in non-research transferable skills

The Management School offers regular workshops on career development, leadership training and the soft skills demanded by the employers of PhD students.

Expected  dissemination of results: peer-reviewed journals, seminars, workshop and conferences at European/international level

Output will be presented at top international conferences such as the European Historical Economics Society and the International Society for the History and Theory of Intellectual Property Law.

PhD chapters would form the basis for submissions to top economic history field journals such as Economic History Review or the Journal of Economic History.

The PhD student's output may also hold significant appeal to industrial economics outlets such as the RAND Journal of Economics, to law and economics outlets such as the Journal of Law and Economics, and to legal history outlets such as the Journal of Legal History.

Expected impact activities

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

The policy implications of this research are potentially significant. An active debate on the future of patent systems is on-going.

The Dutch patentless period provides lessons from the past for policymakers today, especially those in developing countries considering to introduce or alter their patent systems in major ways.