She Locks It All Inside and Hides It All Away*

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In the New Yorker James Surowiecki has a short, precise and correct takedown of the way the U.S. is cramming intellectual property reforms into international trade deals. Surowiecki focuses on South Korea:

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.

It's a policy prescription and a set of arguments we often hear about China, too (hence my bizarre headline). Surowiecki, sounding a lot like Jesse Walker, explains why it's bunk.

The great irony is that the U.S. economy in its early years was built in large part on a lax attitude toward intellectual-property rights and enforcement. As the historian Doron Ben-Atar shows in his book "Trade Secrets," the Founders believed that a strict attitude toward patents and copyright would limit domestic innovation and make it harder for the U.S. to expand its industrial base. American law did not protect the rights of foreign inventors or writers, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in his famous "Report on Manufactures," of 1791, actively advocated the theft of technology and the luring of skilled workers from foreign countries. Among the beneficiaries of this was the American textile industry, which flourished thanks to pirated technology. Free-trade agreements that export our own restrictive I.P. laws may make the world safe for Pfizer, Microsoft, and Disney, but they don't deserve the name free trade.

Read much more on IP here.

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  1. Old adage in the construction industry…”Depends if you’re buyin or sellin”, I believe applies here.

  2. Why would we want South Korea to expand its own culture when we can sell it ours?

  3. The Red Rockers. Bravo.

  4. wow this song sucks.

  5. was built in large part on a lax attitude toward intellectual-property rights and enforcement

    What kind of tariffs was the US facing from other countries, then. I don’t know the answer, but if the US paid its big customers big tariffs back in the good old days, then what is happening with the Sorkos now is not necessarily inconsistent with the historical experience.

    DISCLAIMER: which is not to say it is good policy.

  6. What’s funny is that in a trade deal that we completed with Thailand, the Thais were shocked to discover afterwards that they were obligated to henceforth worship a giant mouse with missing fingers.

  7. It seems weird to base your criticism of modern copyright law on the fact that 200 years ago, the US was stealing intellectual property with both hands. Shoot, we were supporting actual piracy 200 years ago, not this limp-wristed copyright piracy. That doesn’t make plank-walking and timbers-shivering ok in the modern world.

  8. We were pirates more recently than that. Ask Dickens about out activities in the 19th century.

  9. Ask him about our activities. Dickens wasn’t gay.

  10. ARRRGH Thar be a swell booty. An ta bestest part, even after we takes it, it won’t be missed till we sells it.

    I.P. is the best friend a pirate ever had.

  11. Abdul,

    The US was supporting privateering in the war with England 200 years ago, not piracy. The distinction is small in practice, but very large legally speaking.

    Also, the weak IP referenced largely took place between 1850 and 1950, not 200 years ago. IP only become important to US politicians when the US was perceived as producing the majority of the world’s patentable and copyrightable ideas.

  12. At last, acknowledgement that the “free trade” agrrements negotiated by our governments amount to a bill of rights for corporations while paying no attention to labor or environmental standards. Agricultural and other subsidies still abound, ruining the lives of many in developing countries.

  13. Just as I would not want to pile trade restrictions amenable to corporate interests onto a “free trade” agreement loaded with restrictions amenable to labor and environmental interests, I would not want the reverse either.

    Society is poorer by the degree in which trade is restricted. Balancing who is doing the restricting should not enter into the calculus at all.

  14. Intellectual Property is Theft!

  15. I’m sure the rest of the world chuckles at the irony that the US leads the world in anything intellectual.

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