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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Cumulative Research and the Patent Law

by Suzanne Scotchmer
Journal of Economic Perspectives ()

Abstract

Sir Isaac Newton himself acknowledged, "If I have seen far, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Most innovators stand on the shoulders of giants, and never more so than in the current evolution of high technologies, where almost all technical progress builds on a foundation provided by earlier innovators. For example, most molecular biologists use the basic technique for inserting genes into bacteria that was pioneered by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in the early 1970s, and many use a technique for causing bacteria to express human proteins that was pioneered at Genentech. In pharmaceuticals, many drugs like insulin, antibiotics, and anti-clotting drugs have been progressively improved as later innovators bettered previous tech- nologies. Computer text editors are similar to one another, as are computer spreadsheets, in large part because innovators have inspired each other. An early example of cumulative research was Eli Whitney's cotton gin, which was quickly modified and improved by other innovators who seriously curtailed his profit.

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