Tyler Cowen has an interesting post up, What determined the playing length of an audio CD? Turns out Sony wanted a smaller diameter CD at first, but soon settled on a 120mm diameter so that the 74 minute version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the favorite piece of a Sony VP’s wife) could fit on a single CD. Interesting story, but the 74 minute length, and corresponding physical diameter of the CD, is not really arbitrary.
This reminded me of the quirky origins of the patent term. The patent term is currently approximately 17 years–20 years from the date of filing, once the patent issues (which typically takes about 3 years from filing to issue). The English Statute of Monopolies of 1623 (enacted 1624), one of the main historical basis for modern patent law, provided for a fourteen year patent term (the Statute of Anne of 1709 (enacted 1710), the first modern copyright statute, also provided a copyright of fourteen years; modern copyright lasts 70 years past the death of the author). Why fourteen years? As explained by Fritz Machlup in An Economic Review of the Patent System:
The duration of patents has been determined by historical precedent and political compromise. The 14-year term of the English patents after 1624 was based on the idea that 2 sets of apprentices should, in 7 years each, be trained in the new techniques, though a prolongation by another 7 years was to be allowed in exceptional cases.
In other words, the patent term’s origin is utterly arbitrary and bizarre, and has no bearing on anything to do with modern life. The current patent term of about 17 years, and the current copyright term of roughly 100 years, are also completely arbitrary. There is no evidence whatsoever that these are optimal terms; that there even are any optimal terms. It seems obvious that IP terms should either be zero, or perpetual: the former, if IP is not really property; the latter, if IP is really a libertarian property right. People familiar with my views know which side I would take.