Special Issue: Are intellectual property rights working for society?

Research Policy Call for Special Issue

Guest Editors:

Carolina Castaldi (Utrecht University)
Elisa Giuliani (University of Pisa)
Margaret Kyle (MINES, Paris Tech)
Alessandro Nuvolari (Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies)

Over the last thirty years, policymakers have prioritized Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) as mechanisms to promote the production and diffusion of knowledge, including new ideas, inventions, creative works and much more. Underlying this new prominence is the widespread notion that both extending property rights (to software, plants, business models, databases etc.) and deepening them (by increasing the “strength” of protection) will foster creativity and innovation. While IPRs clearly increase expected private returns to the owners, their effects on social returns are less clear. In fact, the recent strengthening of IPR regimes worldwide (sanctioned by the TRIPS Agreement and other multilateral trade agreements) has prompted fundamental questions about the effectiveness of these institutions at balancing the trade-offs between private and public benefits (Heller, 2010; Lunney Jr., 1999). The intellectual monopolies associated with IPRs may restrict access to knowledge and innovations that can change the lives of many (Bessen and Meurer, 2008). For instance, IPRs may hamper access to life-saving treatments, prevent poor farmers from using seeds once they are patented, or provide a means of appropriating the cultural heritage of indigenous communities.

At present, IPR systems are facing a severe legitimacy crisis. Several scholars have unveiled perverse mechanisms and strategic IPR practices, leading them to challenge the notion that IPR systems are indispensable (Dosi et al., 2006; Boldrin and Levine, 2008; Henry and Stiglitz, 2010; Moser, 2013; Cimoli et al. 2014; Lemley, 2015; van Gompel, 2019). At the same time, other scholars stress the key role of IPRs in a time when the strategic importance of intangible assets and innovation for organizations, regions and countries is becoming increasingly evident (Ziedonis, 2008; Haskell and Westlake, 2018). Moreover, whether IPRs can act as coordination devices or instead paralyse responses to societal challenges — including urgent health crises like pandemic outbreaks and various sustainability challenges — remains a conundrum. In the context of agricultural production, for instance, IPR protection can undermine farmers’ livelihood by hindering their free reuse of seeds from previous harvest, while it grants strong economic power to agri-food companies owning seed patents (Campi and Nuvolari, 2015). In the pharmaceutical industry, Kyle and McGahan (2012) found a strong association between patent protection and R&D efforts for diseases that are prevalent in high income countries, while this association is not found for diseases like malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and leprosy that are prevalent in low income countries. Their work suggests that IPRs may not be effective to address the threats of the most vulnerable and poorest countries. Indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge is also an area where companies have engaged in “bioprospecting,” by selectively searching for biodiversity with the purpose of commercially exploiting its biochemical or genetic elements (Robinson 2012), thus threatening indigenous communities’ subsequent use of the patented biological resources. Even less understood or studied is IPRs’ impact on and possible tensions with other societal goals, such as equality, environmental sustainability, and human rights.

These and similar issues present a number of policy challenges that must be addressed in order for IPR institutions to deliver the societal goals that they are, purportedly, designed for. Such a discussion can be informed by collecting systematic evidence on practices of (non-) use of IPRs across industries, markets and countries, to identify such tensions as well as to understand best practices in deploying IPRs responsibly. We still lack a systematic assessment of IPR alternatives, including compulsory licensing or patent pools (Kingston, 2011; Contreras et al., 2018) and bottom-up initiatives like open source software or creative commons (Ahn et al., 2019). Research in this domain is scant and largely confined to law scholarship, biology or anthropology. However, economists and other social scientists who focus on innovation have much to gain from taking these issues seriously in order to inform economic and innovation policy.

The aim of this special issue is to gather interdisciplinary contributions from scholars who are actively working in this broad area of inquiry, in order to contribute to a Special Issue that aims to (i) take stock of the wealth of knowledge on the subject, (ii) integrate knowledge from the community of innovation scholars with that of other scholarly communities and (iii) provide original and challenging policy recommendations, expanding the frontiers of the scholarly debate.

With these ends, we welcome contributions on the following topics of interest:

The foundations of IPRs:

  • Do IPRs work as genuine property rights? Does this differ across the different types of IPR?
  • Where is the legitimacy of IPR systems coming from and how is their legitimacy challenged? What are alternatives to IPRs that have gained legitimacy in specific (institutional) contexts?
  • Which innovations and new forms of economic activities (i.e. digital platforms, 3D printing) are challenging the boundaries of IPRs?

IPRs and dynamic competition:

Inviting empirical studies offering insights on how to balance the tensions and trade-offs of IPR systems for fostering creativity and innovation.

  • What factors affect the balance between IPRs as barriers to entry and IPRs as drivers of competition and innovation?
  • In which sectors do IPRs disproportionately provide monopoly rents and what are the underlying mechanisms?
  • How can competition policy take IPR practices into account when considering the long-term effects of policies?

IPR and societal challenges:

  • Do IPR-based governance models help or hinder diffusion of sustainable innovation?
  • How can IPR systems contribute to solving global health and other human rights challenges?
  • How inclusive are IPR systems and what role do they play in shaping social, cultural and economic inequalities?

In the Special Issue we welcome contributions on patents, copyrights, trademarks, design rights, breeders’ rights and other specialized rights. We look for conceptual as well as empirical contributions, and a variety of methodological approaches (quantitative and qualitative).

Deadlines for submission:

Full papers can be submitted from 1st of February to 1st of May 2021. Submissions must be through the journal’s online system. Submission guidelines are available here. When submitting please remember to choose this Special Issue in the dropdown menu listing submission types.

The Guest Editors plan to organize an online Paper Development Workshop (PDW) at the end of 2021, to provide suggestions for improvement to the authors of the papers that passed the first round of the revision process.

We expect the Special Issue to be out in Spring 2022.

For any further inquiry please contact: Elisa Giuliani (elisa.giuliani@unipi.it).


Ahn, J. M., Roijakkers, N., Fini, R., & Mortara, L. (2019). Leveraging open innovation to improve society: past achievements and future trajectories. R&D Management, 49(3), 267-278.

Bessen, J. E. & Meurer, M. J. (2008). Patent failure: How judges, bureaucrats, and lawyers put innovators at risk. Princeton University Press.

Boldrin, M., & Levine, D. K. (2008). Against intellectual monopoly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Campi, M. and Nuvolari, A. (2015), Intellectual property protection in plant varieties: a worldwide index (1961-2011), Research Policy, 44, 951-964.

Cimoli, M., Dosi, G., Maskus, K., Okediji, R., Reichman, J. and Stiglitz, J. (2014), Intellectual Property Rights. Legal and Economic Challenges for Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Contreras, J. L., Hall, B. H., & Helmers, C. (2018). Green Technology Diffusion: A Post-Mortem Analysis of the Eco-Patent Commons (No. w25271). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Dosi, G., Marengo, L., & Pasquali, C. (2006). How much should society fuel the greed of innovators? On the relations between appropriability, opportunities and rates of innovation. Research Policy, 35(8), 1110-1121.

Haskel, J., & Westlake, S. (2018). Capitalism without capital: The rise of the intangible economy. Princeton University Press.

Heller, M. (2010). The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Henry, C., & Stiglitz, J. E. (2010). Intellectual property, dissemination of innovation and sustainable development. Global Policy, 1(3), 237-251.

Kingston, W. (2001). Innovation needs patents reform. Research Policy30(3), 403-423.

Kyle, M. K., & McGahan, A. M. (2012). Investments in pharmaceuticals before and after TRIPS. Review of Economics and Statistics94(4), 1157-1172.

Lemley, M. (2015). Faith-based Intellectual Property. UCLA Law Review, 62, 1328-1346.

Lunney Jr, G. S. (1999). Trademark monopolies. Emory LJ, 48, 367.

Moser, P. (2013). Patents and innovation: evidence from economic history. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27(1), 23-44.

Robinson D.F. (2012). Biopiracy and the Innovations of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, in Drahos P., Frankel S., Indigenous Peoples’ Innovation: Intellectual Property Pathways to Development, ANU E Press.

van Gompel, S. (2019) Patent Abolition: A Real-Life Case Study. American University International Law Review, 34: 877-922.

Ziedonis, R. H. (2008). On the apparent failure of patents: A response to Bessen and Meurer. Academy of Management Perspectives, 22(4), 21-29.