Intellectual property wars are fiercer than ever, although the
institutions most affected (including the media) prefer not to talk
about them. But we may be in for a pendulum shift.
I recently put out a tweet on this topic and was asked to expand on
it. The issues are too big and complex for me to give them a proper
treatment here, but I’ll throw around a few of them and see whether
you think the trend I’m talking about shakes out.
Intellectual property has had an international component for a long
time (the Berne convention on copyright being the best known). A lot
of the international work has been centralized in the World Intellectual Property Organization, a branch of the United Nations. But certain issues
are the responsibility of other organizations, such as ICANN’s rulings
on domain names and trademarks. All these organizations are
stringently insulated from the public (see for instance
my most recent post on ICANN).
One issue that’s currently the buzz of the Internet NGOs is an
Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that would expand the powers of
copyright holders, as well as courts and government agencies
representing them. You won’t find a web page about ACTA at WIPO, or at
the US Copyright Office, or
at other institutions hammering out the deal, but a casual web search
will turn up enough of a diversity of commentary to assure you it’s
Up to now, economic trends in IP were pretty straightforward.
Countries with a long history of development tended to export the
products of IP, such as machine designs and cultural works, to
developing nations. The developed nations always wanted strong control
over IP to ensure a flow of revenue from the less developed nations,
who in turn would resist.
You could see this dynamic in the nineteenth century when novels by
Dickens were widely reprinted in the US without royalty payments, and
when the founder of the Industrial Revolution copied English looms in
order to start textile factories in Lowell, Massachusetts. Now we have
battles over the licensing of Monsanto seeds, concerns over exports of
machinery to China, and generic anti-AIDS medications being developed
And that’s why the juggarnaut of IP may be slowing. The idea behind
this blog was suggested in passing by economist Adam S. Posen in an
article titled “Who Will Sustain Globalization” for the November 2009
issue of Current History.
As I understand the argument, the institutions responsible for passing
new rules respond to the most powerful countries. The US and Europe
are on the decline in these organizations. All the countries that
benefit from looser IP regimes–China, India, Brazil–are growing in
economic strength and are finding themselves in more and more seats at
the tables of the world’s closed economic institutions. For just one
concrete example, look at the shift of responsibility in recent years
from the G-7 to the G-20. The G-7 is a familiar set of countries that
were powerful from the 1950s through the 1970s. The G-20 is truly
diverse, bringing in strong economies from around the world (but still
just the ones with some international economic clout).
Of course, what’s good for large companies that can spread their works
internationally and enforce their IP is bad for innovators elsewhere.
I am totally in favor of rewarding inventors, including large
established firms, for the time, effort, and expertise they have put
into their inventions. But as always, in IP, rewards for past work
must be balanced against the promotion of further development. And
right now, the world is moving more and more to crowdsourcing. The
best ideas will increasingly come from people around the world pooling
their ideas–including people with few resources and no connections to
major institutions. Those institutions had better learn this lesson
before they succeed in choking off inventions that make a
life-or-death difference to people in developing countries.