The first instinct of trade advocates is to be defensive, but this time the criticism actually offers an excellent opportunity: Instead of mumbling unconvincingly about the political power of innovative U.S. industries, free traders should put their collective foot down and demand a stop. Imposing intellectual property rules through trade agreements has become a political liability that serves special interests at the expense of free trade.
Getting intellectual property out of the TPP would increase the agreement’s ability to open markets, improve its chances for passage in Congress, and bring the negotiations back to what they ought to be about in the first place: lowering protectionist trade barriers.
Despite being tightly wedded in the U.S. trade agenda for the last 20 years, trade policy and intellectual property policy don’t fit together very well. Trade agreements are useful because they provide an effective but imperfect way to improve U.S. trade policy. By offsetting the political power of protectionist industries with the political power of exporting industries, trade agreements offer the promise of open markets at home and abroad.
But this model doesn’t make any sense for intellectual property laws. Unlike tariff reductions, extending intellectual property rights in foreign markets does not directly benefit foreign consumers. At the same time, there is the potential for harm to U.S. consumers when international obligations make domestic intellectual property laws harder to reform or, in some cases, stricter than they would be otherwise. Using trade negotiations to set patent and copyright policy gives excessive power to industry without any justification.