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Captain Trips

By Matthew Yglesias

"Captain Trips"

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It’s one of my hopes that, someday, I’ll be able to say in good faith that Democrats have sound views on my pet cause of intellectual property law. Today, however, this pops up in my inbox:

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leadership, and senior members of the Ways and Means Committee sent a letter to President Bush today calling for immediate action to promote and safeguard American intellectual property (IP) around the world. The Democrats made the case that cracking down on piracy and theft of American IP is critical to restoring economic growth, creating jobs and shrinking the trade deficit.

Some of this relates, according to the press release, to counterfeit auto parts and since I don’t even really know what that means I’m not going to say Pelosi’s wrong about it. As it pertains to software, music, and movie piracy, however, she’s all wet. Developing countries have always had weaker IP protections than rich ones. Certainly, the United States had very weak IP in its early days. That’s simply a rational response to the objective situation. Now it’s arguably true that the contemporary situation (internet and so forth) calls for globally uniform intellectual property rules. But there’s no way that we should achieve that goal by having everyone adopt US IP policy. Our current IP regime is too strict for the United States, and from the perspective of developing countries optimal policy would be even weaker than what would be optimal for the United States.

The problem is that the WTO/TRIPS process has been captured by a handful of large first world companies and is propounding a set of rules that don’t reflect the interests of average Americans or average Europeans much less average Chinese people. I’m not, in general, a critic of the free trade concept, but the multilateral trade regime has become increasingly focused on this business (which, despite the name, is only “trade-related” in the loosest possible sense) rather than the lowering of barriers to the exchange of goods and service. Really the only mitigating factor is that they’ve names the global IP agreement TRIPS, making it reminiscent of Captain Trips, the deadly plague that wipes out humanity in The Stand.

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