One claim critics of Distributism frequently make is that the elimination of large monopolies with their wealth will bring innovation and technological development to a virtual halt. They cannot seem to conceive of companies working together for the mutual benefit of everyone without having government issue patents to “protect” their inventions. While the current system of patents certainly works in stimulating innovation, it does so based on the idea of exclusive claims to rights to use the development, and the ability to extract money payments from anyone else who would make use of it. Theoretically, it also allows companies to prevent the use of innovations by not allowing anyone to use the patented technology.
What seems to be missed by these critics is that innovation can be achieved without such measures. The simple fact is that producers and craftsmen desire innovation because it can result in better products that people will want to buy. Therefore, the incentive to innovate exists regardless of the ability to patent. The question remains how research, which can sometimes be expensive, gets funded without things like stock market investments or wealthy corporations who only provide funding expecting to receive patents.
The Medieval era, the 5th through the 15th centuries, was a time when Distributist societies existed in all but name, especially during the last three centuries of that period. In those days, it was simply called Christendom. It didn’t have patents, stock markets, or wealthy monopolistic corporations. Yet it was still a period of significant technological innovation. Innovations of the period include the wheeled heavy plough, tidal mills, vertical windmills, water hammers, the hourglass, the blast furnace (in Europe), eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, the wheelbarrow, the tread-wheel crane, the dry compass, the stern-post mounted rudder which allowed for the building of larger ships, multi-masted ships, the Jacob’s staff (predecessor to the sextant), the wine press (which Guttenberg later adapted to make the printing press), the stationary harbor crane, rib vaults in architecture, central heating through underfloor panels, the segmental arch bridge, floating cranes, oil paint, watermarks, mirrors, buttons with buttonholes, cannon, the arched saddle, and the longbow.
Funding for research and development during that period was accomplished through contributions from guilds in different areas and through credit institutions which got a percentage of profits from products until their investment was returned. Representatives from guilds, monasteries, and universities from different regions met frequently to discuss the ideas they were developing. Through these meetings, input and ideas from far and wide would be included in research efforts. They freely offered their ideas because they knew they would receive the benefit of whatever innovations the research developed. Without patents, the innovations were freely spread to producers and craftsmen throughout the land who then chose whether or not to make use of them. This sharing of information, of the successes and failures of various methods, led to greater productivity, greater wealth, better education, and more leisure time for the individuals of all classes.