May 14, 2007
In the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has a very smart analysis of America's approach to intellectual property laws in international trade deals:
Our recent free-trade agreement with South Korea is a good example. Most of the deal is concerned with lowering tariffs, opening markets to competition, and the like, but an important chunk has nothing to do with free trade at all. Instead, it requires South Korea to rewrite its rules on intellectual property, or I.P.—the rules that deal with patents, copyright, and so on. South Korea will now have to adopt the U.S. and E.U. definition of copyright—extending it to seventy years after the death of the author. South Korea will also have to change its rules on patents, and may have to change its national-health-care policy of reimbursing patients only for certain drugs. All these changes will give current patent and copyright holders stronger protection for longer. Recent free-trade agreements with Peru and Colombia insisted on much the same terms. And CAFTA—a free-trade agreement with countries in Central America and the Caribbean—included not just longer copyright and trademark protection but also a dramatic revision in those countries’ patent policies.[...]
The U.S., in its negotiations, insists on a one-size-fits-all approach: stronger rules are better. But accepting a diverse range of I.P. rules makes more sense, especially in light of the different economic challenges that developing and developed countries face. Lerner’s study found that the benefits of stronger patent laws were reduced in less developed countries. And developing countries, being poorer, obviously have more to gain from shorter patent terms for foreign innovations, since that facilitates the spread of new technology and the diffusion of ideas. Tellingly, this is the approach the U.S. takes when it comes to labor standards, arguing that we shouldn’t impose developed-country standards on developing countries. But in the case of intellectual property the government’s position is exactly the opposite. The only difference, it seems, is whose interests are at stake.
It's worth driving in how exact the analogy is: Labor and corporations both argue that insufficient attention to their particular regulatory protections -- in Labor's case, wage and work standards, in the corporate example, IP laws -- will lead to disastrous consequences. Labor warns of the middle class's demise, corporations warn of innovation's end. Neither strikes me as particularly likely in full, but both will suffer adverse effects from a deregulated global sphere. It's telling, then, that Labor's concerns are almost entirely ignored, while the American government exerts great energy in favor of corporate protections. As Krugman recently put it in a column on inequality, "The government can tilt the balance of power between workers and bosses in many ways—and at every juncture this government has favored the bosses.” There's no market-based, independent reason to demand wide application of our patent laws and not our labor standards. It's a choice, and a revealing one.
I'm so sick of all the intellectual property nonsense. There's no need for the author (read: corporation that holds the rights) to be able to hold copyright or even necessarily a paten for eternity.
Except for profits, of course.
Posted by: Stephen | May 14, 2007 12:10:45 PM
Labor and IP standards are a choice, and elections have consequences - as Cheney likes to say.
These new trade agreements have the same problem as the previous ones: they depend on the US Government complaining and acting if the other party fails to uphold its committments. Bush/Cheney&Co. LLP only complain and act on IP failures, and not labor standards failures - so the agreements are just paper.
Until individuals (including class actions), and groups (including unions) have standing in the courts of both countries to bring suits for non-enforcements of the agreements, we should oppose all new agreements. With legal standing in courts, there is at least the chance the paper of the agreements will be enforced.
Having worthless words in the agreements doesn't solve the clear problems of asymetical enforcement engaged by both parties when the governments are free to ignore what the words require.
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 14, 2007 12:32:08 PM
the choice may be revealing, but it's certainly not surprising. the evolution of IP laws and the power of corporations in the US have both increased continuously since the beginning of the 1980s. it's going to take more than dems winning the house to change that trend.
Laws tend to favor the industries which buy them. Since every corporate entity seems to think that increased IP protections will be good for profits, all those companies are buying the same laws. Only the people suffer.
This leaves us individual citizens with only two choices, which are not necessarily exclusive: we can either (a) elect politicians who are free of financial obligations to corporate interests, or (b) we the people can disregard IP laws we disagree with. The long term solution is (a), but (b) is already in effect.
Now, I'd love to stick around and chat, but I have to burn copies of a couple CDs that I just finished downloading from bittorrent.
Posted by: tekel | May 14, 2007 12:57:38 PM
There's no market-based, independent reason to demand wide application of our patent laws and not our labor standards. It's a choice, and a revealing one.
What does it reveal, though? I can see at least one probable reason for the difference in how the two are treated that isn't considered. There is probably far less resistance to adopting our patent protections than our labor standards. With patent protection the upside for us is much higher than the downside for them. It isn't that hard a sell. With labor protection the balance may be the opposite. Even if we wanted very badly for these countries to adopt our labor standards, it would be very hard, maybe not possible, to get them to do it.
And we're ambivalent, of course. We get cheaper goods here because of the horrible labor practices abroad. That, along with our reduced concern about protecting our labor from competition, is part of what you see as the point, but the first part shouldn't be forgotten.
We should push for incremental improvements in labor standards abroad, but not with the expectation that we can get others to adopt our standards wholesale as with patents.
One other thing behind the difference: labor spends a lot more effort opposing free trade agreements than getting involved in the process of negotiating them.
Posted by: Sanpete | May 14, 2007 5:07:34 PM
Thanks for making it clear that so-called "intellectual property" is, as you say, a "regulatory protection"--and not "property" at all.
I'd go Lerner one further on the alleged benefits of "intellectual property." A study by F.M. Scherer found that that something like 80% of product and process improvements would have been introduced without any patent protections at all, just for the sake of maintaining competitiveness and productivity.
Patents are just a way of enabling a class of corporate gatekeepers to collect a toll on progress and prevent people from building on each other's ideas without paying rent.
Posted by: Kevin Carson | May 15, 2007 12:20:38 AM
I've linked to some reports from the National Academy of Science on the costs and benefits of patents. I haven't read them myself because they I'm not sufficiently interested to purchase them.
Posted by: Robert | May 15, 2007 6:32:01 AM
Which of course is why so many of us classical liberal types think that TRIPs (the insertion of IP rights into WTO negotiations) was such a bad idea.
Posted by: Tim Worstall | May 15, 2007 6:35:02 AM
Just to emphasize the central role of a 'formulary'
in providing affordable broad-based health care.
What they have done in ...
"South Korea will also have to change
its rules on patents, and may have to change its national-health-care policy
of reimbursing patients only for CERTAIN* drugs."
is to preclude 'the formulary', a list of approved or affordable drugs (like the VA's).
Exactly what so terrifies the plutocrats in a Medicare formulary...is that negotiated list of
medications approved as efficacious and [mostly or] relatively inexpensive.
Old line/standard drugs usually or generic.
AND compiled by Medicare people (or the VA, etc.)...NOT
composed by Big Pharma and imposed upon any provider.
Bush's part D in action...as corporate imposition-from-without.
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