IP For Thee but Not For Me

As the US lodges a complaint to the WTO that the People’s Republic of China is being insufficiently zealous about cracking down on “pirate” DVDs, The Atlantic posts a neat feature recapitulating some of the debate in their pages about copyright law in the second half of the nineteenth century. You’ll learn that in its early decades, the United States — like any responsible developing nation — has very lax enforcement of intellectual property rights. As the country developed, calls for us to adopt stricter standards even at the price of having less “pirated” European material eventually became impossible to resist since the US came to produce a sufficiently influential sector of IP producers.

One can go in a few directions from here, but the simplest point is that this sort of trade conditionality is relatively uncontroversial in the United States. It’s written right into the text of most of the agreements. Not “we will lower our barriers to the importation of your goods” or even “we will lower our barriers to the importation of your goods in exchange for you doing the same.” Rather, it’s “we will lower our barriers to the importation of your goods if you adopt an intellectual property regime we like better.” This is not very structurally different from a more labor-friends sort of conditionality where instead one says “we will lower our barriers to the importation of your goods if you adopt labor rights regime we like better.” On the other hand, as you see, IP conditionality hasn’t been enormously successful at actually achieving its enforcement aims in a lot of fields, though it has worked out nicely for pharmaceutical firms.