Debating Intellectual Property

In remarks at the most recent meeting of the President’s Export Council, now-former U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk (he just stepped down yesterday) stated (see 25:10 of the video):

We have a knowledge-based economy, and we have to protect that. … We have to have the strongest intellectual property protection that we can possibly seek in these [trade]  agreements. … We are failing miserably in the public debate about the importance of protecting our intellectual property rights. … Somehow we [need] to fashion an argument for the American public that helps them to understand that if we give away our work product, we just don’t have  a future.

I agree that there should be some protection of intellectual property. But how much? I think a public debate about these issues would be great. From what I can see from my perspective in the trade world, there’s almost never a real discussion of this issue. Instead, there is just constant pushing from the U.S. government for stronger intellectual property protection.

If there is going to be a debate, here are some questions I have:

  • Why should patent terms be 20 years rather than, say, 10 or 30 years?  The 20-year term seems arbitrary, and I’d like to see some evidence that this is the right one. And are there some products that should not be eligible for patents?
  • Why should copyright terms be the life of the author plus 70 years? They used to be much shorter. Has copyright become unbalanced
  • Is there room for different views among different countries? Should the U.S. government be pushing other countries to adopt our model?

I don’t think that whether we should “give our work product away” is the right way to frame the issue. Rather, the question is, how much protection should intellectual property be given? By all means, let’s have a public debate about that.