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The Problems with Patents: A Less than Optimistic Reading of the Future


  • Michael S. Carolan

    1. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University, Department of Sociology, B236 Clark, Fort Collins, CO 80523–1784, USA; e-mail: He is currently engaged in two streams of research. One centres on analysing and describing the socio-technical system of biofuels in terms of past, present and future trajectories. In the second, utilizing STS concepts, he is examining patent law as it applies to biotechnology. With the help of such concepts as ‘boundary work', ‘boundary objects', ‘mutable mobiles' and ‘fluid objects' this line of research highlights the work that goes into giving biotechnological artefacts their ‘objective' qualities.
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  • The author would like to thank the anonymous referees of this journal for comments on an earlier version.


This article examines a number of problems associated with patents. These are aspects of patents (and patent law) that are masked by conventional discourse that frequently equates strong patent protections with innovation and, ultimately, economic growth. This article will discuss: patents' links with knowledge and expertise; infrastructural requirements; innovation incentive structures; coercive tendencies (via high litigation and transactions costs); and global ‘harmonization' agreements (specifically TRIPs). In sum, it provides a glimpse of why patent law matters for understanding today's political economy and why global inequalities will continue to grow unless the international socio-legal landscape changes substantially.