Of Intellectual Property and Neo-Imperialism

As a U.S. Citizen, I would like my country to enjoy respect abroad and to inspire others with the ideals that I beleive make this country great. Sadly, this is often compromised in our diplomatic dealings with other countries.

Folks like to pin the current unpopularity of the U.S. on the Iraq War and arrogant foreign policy. But for most countries it is bread and butter issues, like access to medicine. Jamie Love writes this excellent piece about negotiations in Thailand this week likely to make it more difficult for Thais to produce generic medications.

It is important in this regard to distinguish between requiring countries to crack down on counterfeiting and infringing uses of coipyrighted or patented material that violate a country’s own laws. But it is another thing to require countries to expand their patent and copyright systems to match the demands of our industry lobbyists, especially where these changes impose new exclusive rights unknown in the U.S. or recent and controversial.

It is also important to recognize this is not a new thing. Since the early 1990s, foreign economic policy has been dominated by industry interests pressing simultaneously for new exclusive rights in patent and copyright in other countries, privatization of all government industries (usually sold at auction to foreign investors to meet IMF or World Bank requirements for foreign capital reserves), and grant of monopoly rights to the new private owners to “protect investment” and “encourage deployment.”

I first noticed this in 1994. The ratification of the U.S. obligations under the Israel-Jordan peace agreement included a clause requiring Jordan to accept the validity of “business method patents.” Business method patents were a fairly new innovation in 1994, and not broadly recognized globally. What did this have to do with the Israel-Jordan peace treaty? And why should we have demanded such an alteration of a country’s patent law when it remained highly controversial at home?

Indeed, industry has engaged in a systemic pattern of leveraging international negotiation to expand existing rights or create new ones, then pressuring Congress to “conform” to the new “global standard.” The Digital Millemium Copyright Act, which grew out of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) agreement on digital copyrights, is a classic example.

Unfortunately, this is also a classic example of the financial interests of media organizations driving coverage. Among the largest beneficiaries of the expansion of copyright are the entertainment companies: Viacom, NBC, News Corp. Perhaps not coincidentaly, they also own the primary media news outlets.

It is also worth noting in this regard that according to the PEW Project on Excellence in Journalism, reporters are likely to censor or modify their coverage if they believe it will impact the economic interest of their publisher — even without explicit instructions to do so.

In the 1990s, the impacts of this “neo-imperialism” were disguised by the rush of foreign investment that pumped up the local economies and the belief that the United States had demonstrated the superiority of capitalism over socialism. But, as the squeeze has gotten harder, and corrupt governments have run off with the investment money, and local economies have suffered, the resentment grows. It has manifested itself in South and Central America, where increasing numbers of “populist” candidates have won elections on a platform of resisting neo-imperialism.

This has begun to affect a change at the international level. A block of nations calling themselves the “friends of development,” led by countries hostile to the U.S. such as Venezuala, has begun to push back on the global intellectual property regime. Suddenly challenged, these once collegial bodies of consensus and international commity have reverted back to Industrial North v. Less Developed South politics. Meanwhile, China and India provide economic trading partners to these developing nations that do not come with the same strings as trade with the U.S.

And ultimately, we suffer as well. The expansion of patent rights has led to billions of wasted dollars in patent litigation, as well as an entire cottage industry in shaking down businesses for “patent licenses” on questionable patents and business method patents. Keeping cheap generics out of the developing world keeps them out of the U.S. as well. And anger at the U.S. continues to grow while we naively believe that the world must love us because so many illegal immigrants want to live here.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. got a very rude awakening. For no reason the average American could understand, countries all around the world were mad at us. No one had told them how United Fruit and other such companies in “bannana republics” had become such a symbol of oppression that socialists could build popular support simply by promising to nationalize the holdings of the hated Yanquis. With the rise of other competing economic powers, I wonder if we will have a similar rude awakening from our current neo-imperial period.

Stay tuned . . .

One Comment

  1. A+ you pinko!

    I think the rude awakening is in progress. (More later from me on this, I hope.)

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