Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When politicians agree

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." - Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Last week, the blogosphere tells me, the US Congress voted overwhelmingly for a new policy to oppose any global climate change treaty that "weakens the IP rights of American companies".

Actually it's worse than that. The Secretary of State is mandated to ensure that "the protection in foreign countries of the intellectual property rights of United States persons in other countries is a significant component of United States foreign policy". And "in consultation with the Director General of the United States and Foreign Commercial Service and other agencies as appropriate, ... ensure that adequate resources are available at diplomatic missions in any country that is identified" as failing to do enough to enforce US IP rights against its own citizens.

What prompted this piece of turf-staking was the suggestion that green technologies should be shared as much as possible. No sooner had the US Energy Secretary, the painfully naïve Steven Chu, suggested that this might be a desirable aim, than bloggers, analysts and other headline-grabbers were talking excitedly of compulsory licensing, seizure or outright abolition of patents on low-carbon technology. Couldn't have that.

What's going on here, I think, is an illustration of the US political class's determination to extend as long and as far as possible the delusion that "intellectual property" is a real thing, as genuine and palpable as actual land. Anything that threatens that perception, anything that hints at the truth of just how fragile and indefensible IP really is, needs to be met, or better yet pre-empted, with prompt and decisive action.

Why? Why is Congress, so conflicted and lukewarm about everything from the budget to immigration, so red-hot and united on this single issue?

I think there are two reasons. The first is obvious: money. Industries that are heavily invested in IP pay fortunes in direct bribes and lobbying to Congress, and that's just the visible totals.

The second reason is more sinister. "Intellectual property" is the new frontier, the realm in which the young and the dispossessed are now encouraged to make their fortunes. Otherwise, they might start asking questions on the lines of "shouldn't we have some real land?" It's a way for the rich to "offer" the poor the prospect of "owning property", without the threat that this "property" might be subtracted from their own possessions. The cost of "intellectual property" is a regressive tax: it's shared more or less equally by all of us, rich and poor alike.

And so far, we're all falling for it.

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