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Author: Peter Lee


Human Capital, Tacit Knowledge, and the Limits of Intellectual Property

Orly’s ambitious and thought-provoking book covers a significant amount of intellectual ground. She deftly navigates covenants not to compete, nondisclosure agreements, trade secrets, and intellectual property assignments to provide a compelling argument for the free flow of talent in the modern economy. Orly’s work raises a host of questions that space constraints no doubt prevented her from more fully exploring, and I would encourage her to extend her analyses in subsequent work.

One aspect of Orly’s work that I found particularly intriguing is that it reveals a central irony about information. The title of her book is a play on Stewart Brand’s famous phrase “information wants to be free.” While this statement has a contemporary ring, the observation that information is “slippery” and readily appropriable has a long pedigree and has had significant legal and policy ramifications. As Orly notes, Thomas Jefferson invoked the freely appropriable nature of technical information to help justify exclusive rights on inventions. More formally, economists have long characterized technical knowledge as a public good that is nonrival, nonexcludable, and capable of nearly costless transmission. The “slipperiness” of technical information is now largely taken for granted and provides significant theoretical justification for exclusive rights on knowledge assets. Indeed, IP scholars such as Polk Wagner have argued that information’s natural tendency to slip through cracks and build upon itself should alleviate concerns that strict exclusive rights can bottle up knowledge. Information, after all, wants to be free.

Orly’s account of the talent wars, however, reveals that much information does not naturally want to be free. As Orly recognizes, much technical information is tacit and personal to a particular creator or inventor. Such tacit knowledge takes the form of intangible know-how that is difficult and sometimes impossible to codify. Importantly, even when an invention is disclosed in a patent, much valuable technical knowledge related to that invention often remains tacit and is not formally shared. The inadequacy of patent disclosure and the difficulty of transmitting tacit knowledge create a need for companies licensing patents to somehow obtain this information. This is evident, for example, in university patenting and technology transfer, a field that Orly addresses. Empirical accounts of academic technology transfer show that private companies, in parallel to licensing university patents, often seek direct interactions with faculty inventors precisely to obtain their patent-related tacit knowledge.

The tacit, sticky nature of technical information relates to another theme that permeates Orly’s work: agglomeration economies and the importance of place. In theory, patents adequately disclose the inventions they cover, which has the effect of reducing transaction costs in licensing negotiations. Among other implications, such ex ante disclosure should make licensing negotiations less sensitive to geographic proximity; at least with respect to appropriating technical knowledge, a potential licensee should not have a great need to interact directly with an inventor, for the patent itself discloses the technology. However, empirical studies of academic licensing show that licenses tend to cluster around licensor universities. To be sure, a host of factors helps explain such clustering, from universities’ commitment to local economic development to the spatially concentrated nature of professional networks (a theme that Orly also highlights). But the need for faculty inventors to literally sit down with licensee firms to convey patent-related tacit knowledge also contributes to such agglomeration. While some information can be transmitted by reading a patent a thousand miles away, sometimes transferring patent-related technical knowledge requires side-by-side demonstrations of a new technology or that ever-valuable personal conversation over a cup of coffee.

In subtle ways, Orly’s work thus offers a cogent exposition of the limits of patent law and formal technology transfer. In theory, the patent system provides a public repository of technical knowledge from which all can draw in their innovative pursuits. At the very least, licensees themselves should be able to rely on the disclosure of patents to adapt licensed inventions for commercial use. However, much information is not freely appropriable. Even when an invention is disclosed, much information remains tacit and personal to the inventor. Thus, patents are inherently limited as a vehicle for disclosing and transferring technologies, thereby creating a need for much costlier, geographically constrained, tacit knowledge transfer between individuals.

In a broader sense, Orly’s observations highlight an interesting paradox about the “freedom” of information. In the classic economic account, the ease of appropriating technical information represents a problem. This problem is resolved by subjecting technical information to exclusive rights, thus shoring up incentive to invent. However, Orly’s study reveals that much information is subject to a different problem: it is too difficult to appropriate, as it resists formal codification and disclosure. This creates a need for a different type of policy intervention, one that focuses on enhancing the mobility of the underlying sources of information—people—rather than information itself. Paradoxically, the fact that much information is not truly free provides all the more reason that the talent generating that information should be.