Are Patents Pointless?

The phenomenon of multiple discovery is well known in science. Innovations famously occur to different people in different places at the same time. Whether it is calculus (Newton and Leibniz), or the planet Neptune (Adams and Le Verrier), or the theory of natural selection (Darwin and Wallace), or the light bulb (Edison, Swan and others), the history of science is littered with disputes over bragging rights caused by acts of simultaneous discovery.

As Kevin Kelly argues in his book “What Technology Wants,” there is an inexorability about technological evolution, expressed in multiple discovery, that makes it look as if technological innovation is an autonomous process with us as its victims rather than its directors.

Via Matt Ridley.

Basic research (the truly foundational stuff like calculus, electricity, and the internet) has historically been subsidized because it exhibits a large positive externality: while the benefits redound to very large numbers of other human beings, the costs are largely confined to the researchers, thus one might reasonably expect a chronic under-investment in basic research in the absence of some subsidy.  Even libertarians agree with the logic of subsidizing basic research.

But if even basic research is inevitable — if clever people have historically been chomping at the bit to make even basic discoveries to the point of simultaneously discovering uncommercializable, basic discoveries, like the existence of Neptune — despite the internalized costs and externalized benefits — then why should patent law exist?  Why should Congress spill oceans of ink to incentivize much more internalizable, and hence commercializable innovations, like Apple’s pinch-to-zoom, click-wheel, and wedge-shaped laptop design?

That’s not a rhetorical question; educate me.  Is technological progress inevitable, or is it not?  If not, then explain to me why the phenomenon of “simultaneous discovery” exists even in the realm of basic research, to say nothing of commercializable research?  If yes, then explain to me why inventors and R&D departments need to be protected not only from thieves but from simultaneous discoverers and commercial imitators as well.

I can see an argument having to do with fairness (though heartbreaking stories like this one tend make me think patent law is unfair to innovators).  But for now I’m really just asking about the efficiency-through-protecting-property-rights-and-incentivizing-research argument, and whether the inevitability of technological progress has anything to do with that.