Critical Section

Exporting IP

Tuesday,  05/15/07  09:11 PM

Every once in a while you read something that manages to get just about everything wrong.  And so it is with a recent column in the New Yorker entitled Exporting IP, by James Surowiecki.  You may read the article here.


As with most New Yorker columns, the thesis is that the U.S. Government is doing something wrong.  And they are, but in keeping with the general theme of getting things wrong, the article gets the wrong part wrong. 

The article starts by observing that in recent trade negotiations, the U.S. has required trade partners to commit to rewriting their IP laws to be more like U.S. laws.  The article defines "IP" as "Intellectual Property, patents, copyrights, and so on...", without making a distinction.  Unfortunate, that, since there is a huge difference between patents and copyrights.  The article goes on to ask "why does the U.S. insist on these rules?  Quite simply, American drug, software, and media companies are furious about he pirating of their products, and eager to extent the monopolies that their patents and copyrights confer."  The link between companies and the government is not defined; this might be the only time ever that the New Yorker has assumed the U.S. Government is doing something others want, instead of having some nefarious agenda of their own.

So about these "monopolies"?  It isn't clear that strong IP laws deter piracy in any case, but while patents defend ideas, and hence do enforce monopolies (and hence have very little to do with piracy), copyrights defend works, and hence do not enforce monopolies (and have a great deal to do with piracy).  Ah, little details.

Next up is this rather astonishing statement: "Intellectual property rules are clearly necessary to spur innovation".  Clearly?  In what universe?  Far from spurring innovation, our patent laws deter innovation.  The article immediately contradicts itself by noting "too much protection can strange competition"; yeah, it can.

There is a teter-totter here, it isn't that IP law is either bad or good, but that some is bad and some is good.  Patents - giving entities ownership over ideas - are bad.  Copyrights - giving entities ownership of work products - are good.  Too much patent law = strangling, too little copyright law = piracy.

Finally the article notes "the U.S. in its negotiations insists on a one-size-fits-all approach... but accepting a diverse range of IP rules makes more sense, in light of the different economic challenges that developing countries face".  Well maybe it makes more sense to some, but not to me; consistency of property protection seems like one of the things that helps developing countries to develop.  I would not put anything in the way of ideas in any country, that would seem to encourage innovation everywhere, while ensuring protection of work products in all countries would seem to encourage entrepreneurs to do something with their ideas.


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