An article of total wisdom

Why the U.S. shouldn’t export its IP laws through free trade agreements, by James Surowiecki.


Our IP laws are execrable.

American IP is one of the *worst* things we can export to the rest of the world. Here's a perfect example of the idiocy of US IP law.

This was one of the hardest things to explain in my intro macro courses. Students readily understood that zero property rights "created" in ideas was a bad idea, but had a hard time with the idea of an optimum, especially one that could vary by country.

The rights of an author of a literary or artistic work run for the life of the author and for 70 years after his death.
European directive.Like the USA
The term of a new patent is 20 years in the USA, the same for Europe.
Obsolescence can be true for inventions not for copyright.

I have a number of issues with the sprawling patent regime that exists in the US -- why should an individuals right to their own work; whether a musical recording or textbook -- be fundamentally different than anything else they might own. An individual dose not have a limited right to their car or home that expires 20 years after they are produced or 70 years after their death, they have a practical right to transfer ownership of that property to any person of their choosing, even upon their death.

As a matter of principle – I cant imagine a sensible and consistent argument for depriving someone of personal property they obtain lawfully (including a copyright) -- unless we assume that such rights of ownership are granted by the state, and so can be arbitrarily revoked whenever policy makers see fit.

kmeleanthony, IP rights are exactly that - state-granted monopolies. At least according to the traditional US view. There, copyrights and patents are limited monopolies of things that are really non-exclusive. In the european tradition, however, the idea was that an artist had a "natural right" to his work. As I see it, with the US position you have to admit that IP rights are a necessary evil, and should be only the minimum necessary to encourage artists, but with the european position you would have a hard time arguing for transferability (either through contracts or to the next generation).

You’ll get no favorable argument's from me regarding the monopolies created by patent protections - I would even challenge the assumption that patent protections are absolutely necessary to spur innovation. A copyright however is fundamentally about rights of contract.

Existing copyright laws is far from perfect, and practical enforcement challenges steaming from legal nuance would persist under the most ideal conditions. Yet, when an author writes a novel, or artist produces an album – contracts govern the production, distribution and compensation associated with these goods. The production or publishing company has a set of obligations; the author may have another set of obligations. And an individual that purchase these goods is also party to a contract, and should understand that by purchasing these items they are for example agreeing not to reproduce them for distribution. I’m not at all convinced that a unique and expansive IP legal framework is needed to protect what are essentially contract rights, domestically or internationally.

The only truly natural property right is ownership of what one is carrying on one's person. Anything beyond that requires social agreements regarding what can be property, how property is to be marked as property, and what privileges and responsibilities accrue to the property owner. In complex societies where such social agreements are formalized in the laws of the state, then yes, property rights are subject to arbitrary legal (re)definition. We can talk about whether a given right is pragmatically good or no, and we can talk about the benefits of stability in the contours of property law, but only in very few instances can we talk about an ab initio moral right to a given kind of property ownership.

"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 ."

The US International Trade Commission considers Intellectual Property Rights an aspect of international trade in services. IPR (listed as royalties and license fees in the balance of payments) includes rights to industrial process, techniques, formulas and designs, copyrights and trademarks, franchise rights and broadcast rights, computer software, management services, and brand rights. Seems to me this stuff IS a form of trade, so I think Surowiecki is wrong to state that it has "nothing to do with free trade at all". Perhaps Mr. Surowiecki thinks the term "trade" only applies to goods.

Still, I don't necessarily disagree with his contention that developing countries may be hurt by the adoption of the US' more stringent IPR rules. My gut tells me he's probably right in many cases. And while I understand and support the existence of IPR rights here in the US, I think we may have created rights that are too strong (innovation stifling) in certain areas.

Hate to double post, but...

Go to your favorite location whose inhabitants include fifteen-month-olds. Display to such a person a bight object which makes sounds (not too loud). Observe what occurs.

The only "natural right" to property is "I see. I want. I get." "Rights", are necessarily social constructs. They are claims which are enforcable in some social environment. If your social environment includes a god, then the idea of a "natural" right may be sensible. Otherwise, I don't see how one can claim that they exist.

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