IP Rights and Technological Platforms

Intellectual Property

Article Snapshot


Robert Merges


Working Paper, 2008


This article looks at how to reconcile the rights of owners of popular technology platforms with the needs of users.

Policy Relevance

Strong IP rights help support a healthy digital economy by giving firms the choice of excluding some uses or users. Many will and do choose to remain open.

Main Points

  • Software “platforms” like Microsoft’s Windows or the iPod are technological places serving many different users. A platform offers building blocks for others, such as software developers, as well as other users.

  • Users benefit from standard technologies, as products and users work together. But one risk is “lock-in,” which happens if users cannot afford to adapt to an alternative.

  • “Open access” networks help users avoid the risk of lock-in by using standards that are not controlled by one firm.  Firms today tend to offer open access because of competition between platforms.

  • Some argue that giving platform owners strong intellectual property (IP) rights impedes open access.  They recommend a minimalist approach to IP law.

  • IP rights give owners the right to exclude users and other competitors from taking advantage of their platform. But these rights are not always exercised or enforced.
    • Adobe uses its IP rights to stop competitors from copying its pdf formatting software, but gives the reader away free to users.

  • The flexibility to enforce or not to enforce IP rights, to exclude some uses of platforms but not others, supports variety and competition in the digital economy. 

  • Top-down rules that prevented exclusion would harm competition and users. Many open platforms thrive because they control the terms on which they are open.

  • The law could support this flexibility by giving firms the option to waive the right to commit themselves not to exclude some uses in a legally binding way.

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