Monthly Archives: November 2012

To patent or not to patent, that is the question

Inventors, Patents and Inventive Activities in the English Brewing Industry, 1634-1850

Alessandro Nuvolari ( and James Sumner (



This paper examines the relationship between patents, appropriability strategies and market for technologies in the English brewing industry before 1850. Previous research has pointed to the apparent oddity that large-scale brewing in this period was characterized both by a self-aware culture of rapid technological innovation, and by a remarkably low propensity to patent. Our study records how brewery innovators pursued a wide variety of highly distinct appropriability strategies, including secrecy, selective revealing, patenting, and open innovation and knowledge-sharing for reputational reasons. All these strategies could co-exist, although some brewery insiders maintained a suspicion of the promoters of patent technologies which faded only in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, we find evidence that sophisticated strategies of selective revealing could support trade in inventions even without the use of the patent system.

Review by Chris Colvin

Much about the recent legal dispute between Apple and Samsung suggests that our patent system is broken. The conventional economic argument for patent protection is that it is socially beneficial because it: (1) incentivises invention in areas where there would otherwise be few rewards for inventors; and (2) aids in the dissemination of ideas and combats secrecy (for a good explanation of the conventional view, see Suzanne Scotchmer’s excellent textbook). But in their 2008 polemic, and again in a recent working paper, Michele Boldrin and David K Levine argue that patents create only ‘an “intellectual monopoly” that hinders rather than helps the competitive free market regime that has delivered wealth and innovation to our doorsteps’. The authors argue instead that: (1) patents neither increase invention, nor adequately reward inventors; and (2) patents simply create a market in patents and in associated legal services.

Nuvolari and Sumner try to understand the remarkably low propensity to patent in brewing before 1850.

It is against this on-going debate on the value and efficacy of patent protection that Alessandro Nuvolari and James Sumner’s new working paper should be read. Distributed on NEP-HIS-2012-11-03, the paper offers an excellent industry case study from history with which to understand the role of patents within a single sector. Nuvolari (Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa) and Sumner (University of Manchester) track their use in the brewing industry before, during and after the Industrial Revolution. Not only do they compile a new dataset of patents and patentees in brewing across the period, but they also catalogue alternative appropriability strategies used by innovators at the time: trade secrecy, complete openness, and everything between. Of particular interest to economists and historians studying innovation and incentives are the authors’ findings that the strategies of “insiders” and “outsiders” to the brewing industry differed substantially, and that there was a large trade in inventions, even for those that were not protected by patents.

Today, and with few exceptions, we have a one-size-fits-all patent system that offers the same levels of protection to inventors in all sectors of the economy. One mooted solution to our current patent mess is that these government-granted monopoly rights should be redesigned to be sector-specific; they are perhaps more appropriate to some industries than others and should have different protection lengths, breadths and costs to reflect this. For example, patents that relate to tablet computers should be weakened, whilst those relating to pharmaceuticals strengthened. Nuvolari and Sumner give us a warning shot from history for policymakers considering such an approach: a great deal of different appropriability strategies can be present even within the same industrial sector, let alone between sectors. Redesigning today’s patent system to be sector-specific would fail to reflect the different ways in which inventors compete; it may force rivals to use the same strategies, and may hamper rather than help progress.

The Mixed Blessings of Clio

The Cliometric Voice

Claude Diebolt (Bureau d’Économie Théorique et Appliquée (BETA), Université de Strasbourg) (


No abstract

Review by Anna Missiaia

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-10-20, this is a short, dense, methodology paper by Claude Diebolt, the editor of the journal Cliometrica, tackles a well known issue among economic historians: the role of quantitative research in economic history (cliometrics) and its relationship with both history and economics. The so-called Cliometric Revolution has now come of age, having started in the 1960s with the work of Robert Fogel. It is safe to say that it has now conquered its space in the field. Diebolt offers us a retrospective of the field, and his vision of its future. The (sometimes harsh) debate is focused on the usefulness and validity of applying economic/econometric tools to the study of the past. He provides a lot of food for thought in this sense.

The paper’s main point is to highlight the usefulness of counterfactual analysis in history. The first example of this line of research that Diebolt discusses is the genre-defining work of Fogel (1964), reviewed here by Lance Davis over on I think that Diebolt’s emphasis on counterfactual analysis is somewhat surprising; the shortcomings of this type of approach are now well known (see Leunig, 2010), and cliometric research today encompasses many other types of analysis that are as fruitful, from institutional analysis, to labour history, and historical economic geography.

I welcome Diebolt’s call for a shift in the economic history discipline at large from the “understanding side” to the “explaining side”. This implies that (quantitative) research should not limit itself to the description of historical phenomena, but also to the study of causal relationships.

Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” (late 1660s), depicting a woman dressed as Clio, the muse of history.

The second part of the paper is devoted to the positioning of cliometrics with respect to both history and economics. Diebolt states that cliometrics is first and foremost a branch of history. It uses economic tools to provide historical answers, but it is not a mere application of economic models to the past. However, Diebolt recognises that cliometric research might also be seen as an auxiliary discipline with respect to economics. This last statement needs a clarification before the detractors of cliometrics start sharpening their weapons. The message here is that economic history could be a tool for economic theory building, not simply as a provider of empirical evidence for its models, but as a source of inspiration to theory. Ideally, there should be a mutual relationship in which cliometricians absorb from economists the latest theoretical and econometric advances, and economists get insights and ideas from the rigorous study of the past. Diebolt pushes the discussion forward, claiming that economic history could in future become a “full-fledged field of economic theory”.

Of the three main arguments about the “branding” of cliometrics, Diebolt’s mission to sell cliometrics as a field of economic theory seems to me the hardest. It is a difficult task to believe that cliometrics is, or ever will be, able to hold its role as a historical tool alongside the creation of a sort of unified theory of economic history. That aside, it would mean a reversal in the logic in what drives cliometric research. If cliometrics is meant to be part of history, as supported by the author, economic theory is just a mere tool used to provide possible answers to historical questions. Conversely, when history is used to prove the validity of an economic model, cliometrics becomes merely applied economics. I believe that the survival of the distinction between cliometrics as part of historical research and applied economics is most likely to be crucial for its future.

  • Fogel R., “Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History”, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1964.
  • Leunig, T., “Social Savings”, Journal of Economic Surveys, Vol.24 (2010), pp.775-800

On the effects of income tax to the private businesses

Income Taxation and Business Incorporation: Evidence from the Early Twentieth Century

By Li Liu (, Centre for Business Taxation, University of Oxford



If the corporate income tax is set at a different rate from non-corporate income tax, it can play an important role in a firm’s choice of organizational form. The impact and interdependency of income tax incentives are crucial factors to take into account when designing efficient tax policies. In this paper I exploit the substantial variation in income taxes across U.S. states in the early twentieth century to estimate these sensitivities. The potential endogeneity of state taxes is addressed using an IV approach. The results demonstrate that the relative taxation of corporate to personal income has a significant impact on the corporate share of economic activities. Raising the entrepreneur’s tax cost of incorporation by 10% decreases the mean corporate share of economic activities by about 11-18%. In addition, higher personal tax rates may affect the share of corporate activities through tax evasion and tax progressivity.

Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal

What are the implications of income tax on the organizations? As Li Liu claims in this paper distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-10-20, the interplay of corporate and personal income taxes are central to tax policy design. As we have all witnessed, the new century has been marked by a turbulent corporate world. Politicians, economic-policy makers, and citizens are calling for new regulation and control over the giant corporations ruling the economies of most countries.

After almost a century of dealing with corporations, the issue is still which is the best way to keep the corporations within the limits of what is right for a country’s economy without having a negative effect on the firm’s growing path. The fact that the taxation lies in the heart of the relation between the businesses and the rest of the society, implies that its understanding needs both sides of the story (even shown from different perspectives): the policy-maker decision on how, when, and whom to tax; and, the effects of taxation in the structure, productivity, and revenues of the firm. The former commonly studied, and the latest still open to include case studies of firms and countries.

CNN Money online / 20 September 2011

Studying the case of the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Liu brings together a period of tremendous changes in the income regimes –including the introduction of the income taxes (corporate in 1909, personal in 1913)- with the appearance of the first well-known big corporations. In other words, this paper is a step forward to fill the gap in the literature on the contribution of income taxes in the spread of corporate forms during an early period.

Using a dataset that includes the tax rates, the corporate share of establishment, employment, and production in the manufacturing sector, Liu builds a theoretical framework that starts with a simple model to illustrate how firms make decisions about whether to incorporate based on comparison of the profits they are likely to obtain from each organizational form (p. 7). This offers a result that shows the complexity of the business decisions and the reality which the policy-maker has to deal with: the taxation of firms differs by organizational form.

Interestingly, Liu adds to the discussion the degree of incorporation making a case on the economic importance of corporations and the fact that a great number of firms incorporate in response to tax incentives, rather than productivity options. Therefore, there is a strong relationship between business incorporation and income taxes when the big transformation occurred.

In other words, firms were not keeping it simple for the policy-maker! As a dynamic unit, the decision on the organizational form they were going to take while growing depended not only on the complexity of the production, the financial options available, or the size of the markets, but also on how they relate with the taxation system that at the end could increase or decrease the degree of incorporation.

Being this intuition not new for those who study the evolution of firms, this paper adds data to a methodological approach that combines the advances of the corporate governance on the structure of the firm and the accounting concern on how to deal with what they have to give back to the society.