Intellectual Property in Trade Agreements

Tom Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation, who spoke at a Cato event we held earlier this year, has a new essay arguing that intellectual property protection should be included in trade agreements. He makes several points, but I’m going to focus on just one.  He states:

[N]umerous studies have found a correlation between higher levels of IP protection and stronger economic growth.

  • According to a 2008 OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] study, stronger patent rights in developing countries are a significant determinant of levels of foreign direct investment, and also facilitate higher levels of technology transfer.
  • A 2012 OECD study found that a 1 percent change in the strength of a country’s IP framework is associated with a 2.8 percent increase in foreign direct investment inflows and a 0.7 percent increase in domestic R&D [research and development].
  • And a 2013 study found that R&D spending has grown relative to GDP in developing countries after they adopted the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The study also found that medicines for developing countries had received additional funding, and that the TRIPS agreement had directly contributed to the emergence of native film industries in African countries.

Here’s the problem: If you treat intellectual property as a single concept, and you can either have more or less protection of it, it would be reasonable to conclude that some countries have too little protection and probably need more. But intellectual property covers a lot of ground. To name a few areas, you have copyrights, trademarks, and patents.  You also have the European favorite, “geographical indications.”

If the argument is that having intellectual property protection is better than not having intellectual property protection, in terms of economic growth, that seems like an easy one.  It’s hard to imagine a modern economy working very well without effective trademark enforcement, for example.

But beyond that, things get complicated. How much protection is too much?  The United States is pushing copyright terms that last for the life of the author plus 70 years as part of its trade negotiations. I’ve argued that’s way too long. What is the right amount exactly?  Well, no one seems to be sure, as far as I can tell, but there are plenty of people who say life plus 70 years is excessive.

So, it’s not enough just to say, “we need stronger IP protection in trade agreements.”  If you want to convince anybody, you need to get into the specifics of each kind of protection, and why the stronger level you propose is justified. Otherwise I’m just going to assume you want stronger IP protection of any and all kinds and would go along with the European Union demand that Feta cheese can only be made in Greece.

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