IP, IP, hooray?

A thought on intellectual property rights following yesterday’s magnum opus. As is often the case in trade deals, political economy means that the remedies are at a tangent to the real problem.

The main complaint I hear from US companies is that their IP is being stolen in emerging markets, particularly but not exclusively, China. It’s not just about the quality of the laws on the books: it’s about getting them enforced. Even if you can get the evidence together for a case (especially tough for industrial espionage), Chinese IP courts have limited recourse and are subject to local political pressure.

But the enforcement issue is really hard to get at (though God knows the US and others have tried). Also, US trade lobbying is dominated by particular sectors like the entertainment and pharma industries. So business concerns about IP manifest themselves where the US does have leverage — using deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership to badger a smaller and basically law-abiding trading partner like Chile to rewrite its copyright laws, or New Zealand to change drugs pricing for its public health system. Such overreach can be counterproductive and create a backlash, as the Australian plain packaging case (in main piece linked above) shows.

It’s the old politicians’ syllogism at play.

First premise: we must do something.

Second premise: this is something.

Conclusion: we must do this.