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Was the French Patent System democratic ? France, 19th century

mardi 5 février 2008, par GGB


The influence of political and social institutions on economic development is a major question developed by institutional economics. Naturally, the relationship between patent system and economic performance has been explored by economists and historians. In her recent book, B. Zorina Khan tends to show that this link was not uniform. By comparing Great-Britain, France and United States, she suggests that American economic performance was based on a « democratization of invention », which was manifested by its patent systems. Contrary to the American one, the « philosophy and enforcement of intellectual property was in Britain and in France, the structure of patent and copyright systems, and the resulting patterns of invention, were all consistent with the oligarchic nature of European society. » [1] Further she adds : « The European systems reflected their origin in royal privilege and effectually limited access to a select class, which ultimately resulted consequences for their long run competitiveness. » [2] Considering the French case under Toqueville’s authority, B. Zorina Khan insists on the continuity between the « privilege mentality » of the Ancien régime and the patent system built by the Revolution. For her, the revolutionary rupture has only a rhetoric meaning and mercantilist policies appear in other forms during the 19th century. Mistrust toward foreign inventions, strong involvement « in the discretionary promotion of invention » and preference for secret remained the essential features of French patterns of invention and conduced to promote rent-seeking activities, which were unfavourable to competitiveness.

The opposite view that we will defend in this paper is not based on patriotic reasons, even if we think that France contributed modestly to the history of democracy. Zorina Khan’s point of view may be considered as partially irrelevant because it prevent from understanding correctly the freezing development of French patent system. In what extent its democratic feature does explain its impossibility to be adapted to the conditions of the so-called second industrial revolution ? It is this interrogation that we would like to answer.

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[1B. Zorina Khan, The Democratization of Invention : Patents and Copyright in American Development, 1790-1920, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 6.

[2Ibidem, p. 29.