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Patent Laws, Product Lifecycle Lengths, and the Global Sourcing Decisions of U.S. Multinationals

May 2011
Working Paper
10-027
By  L. Kamran Bilir
This paper investigates the impact of patent laws on firms’ global sourcing decisions. I develop a theoretical model of multinational firms’ location and production decisions in the presence of cross-country differences in intellectual property rights and cross-sector differences in the length of product lifecycles. I show that patent reforms are irrelevant to firms’ sourcing decisions in industries with rapid product turnover. By contrast, strong patent laws attract affiliate activity in industries with longer product lifecycles, because products in these industries are more likely to be imitated prior to obsolescence and are thus more reliant on patent enforcement to protect revenues. These effects are more pronounced for less-productive firms. Using comprehensive panel data on the sales, assets, and employment of U.S. multinationals and their affiliates abroad and a new measure of product obsolescence, I find robust empirical support for these predictions. Effects are significant along all margins of multinational activity, including multinational presence by country and sector, total affiliate sales conditional on presence, the number of affiliates, and affiliate-level sales. In addition, I find that stronger patent rights tilt the balance of cross-border activity away from exports and toward multinational activity. Finally, my identification strategy allows me to isolate the causal effect of patent reforms on multinational operations, which the prior literature has struggled to establish because of concurrent policy reforms.