Technological Innovation, International Competition, and the Challenges of International Income Taxation

Michael J. Graetz, Columbia Law School
Rachael Doud, Yale University


Because of the importance of technological innovation to economic growth, nations strive to stimulate and attract the research and development (“R&D”) that leads to that innovation and to make themselves hospitable environments for the holding of intellectual property (“IP”). Tax policies have taken center stage in their efforts to accomplish these goals and to capture a share of the income from technological innovations. Designing cost-effective methods of supporting technological innovations has, however, become substantially more difficult as the world economy has become more interconnected. Where R&D is performed and where income is earned change in response to the nature and level of government support. The capacity of multinational enterprises (“MNEs”) to shift their IP production, IP ownership, and IP income across national borders, along with their ability to establish new corporations in tax-favorable jurisdictions, makes designing cost-effective incentives exceptionally difficult. Devising appropriate tax rules for developing IP and for taxing IP income has become the central challenge for international income taxation.

This Article examines the three primary tax policies supporting innovation: (1) incentives for R&D, (2) “patent boxes,” and (3) tax benefits for “advanced manufacturing.” It then briefly describes common techniques MNEs use to lower their taxes on IP income. The Article then assesses the various incentives and offers recommendations about how the United States might respond to challenges it now faces in promoting technological innovation. Based on extensive examination of the economic evidence, the Article concludes that, at most, only R&D incentives are justified.

This Article also summarizes the current proposals for limiting opportunities for U.S. MNEs to shift IP income to low- or zero-tax jurisdictions. In that connection, it offers proposals for change that would more closely align U.S. taxes with U.S. sales.