Tag Archives: intellectual property

PIPA, SOPA, and Internet Freedom in a Globalized World

Visitors to Wikipedia on January 18, 2012 found the site temporary blacked out to protest PIPA and SOPA.

If you’ve tried to access Wikipedia today, you’ve noticed the site is blacked out. Visitors are not allowed to access Wikipedia’s vast collection of user-produced encyclopedia entries, but are instead taken to a jarring black screen that says the following:

“Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge. For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.” There is a link to “learn more” and a prompt to contact your member of Congress about the legislation.  Google, Reddit, Amazon, and other prominent internet-based companies have also blocked certain features on their sites or placed black “censorship banners” over content in order to protest the legislation.

At issue are two bills working their way through the U.S. Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).  As the names imply, they are primarily designed to stop foreign web sites from illegally distributing copyrighted material, such as movies, TV shows, and songs.  Opponents of these steps (whose arguments are summarized here) contend that the legislation gives the U.S. government sweeping powers to censor the internet using tools heretofore employed only by oppressive autocratic regimes.

This controversy reveals the complex tradeoffs between intellectual property rights, freedom of expression, and government power in today’s increasingly globalized world.  Many political scientists have drawn attention to the growing challenges that states face in controlling transnational flows of ideas, goods, diseases, people, and information in a world characterized by greater interdependence and instantaneous communications.  When websites located overseas–beyond the reach of domestic law enforcement instruments–can threaten Americans’ intellectual property rights and by some estimates cost American workers hundreds of thousands of jobs, the U.S. government finds itself in a relatively weak position and must resort to unprecedented steps such as PIPA and SOPA to reassert some authority over the “Wild West” of the 21st-century internet.

What do you think?  Are PIPA and SOPA reasonable steps to attack piracy, or do they unduly threaten the internet freedom of law abiding citizens?  Is there any way for states in the 21st century to control content on the internet without becoming the “Big Brother” that civil libertarians have longed feared?

Economic Development and Intellectual Property

Chinese Solar Panel Production

Solar Panel Production: One of the areas China has been accused of engaging in development-through-copying.

Development has long been an elusive challenge. Despite more than sixty years of theorizing, debating, modeling, and discussing, I think a compelling case can be made that we really still don’t understand how and why development takes place. Sure, we understand the basics: corruption is generally bad, loans and foreign investment are insufficient, and so on. But there’s much, much more that we don’t really understand: How are democracy and development related? Is there a resource curse? What are the necessary conditions for economic growth? And so on.

So when Chris Blattman blogged on Chinese development last week, I read it with particularly interest. Blattman noted the negative coverage the Chinese purchase of a Spanish company received in the New York Times. According to the NYT,

The story of Gamesa in China follows an industrial arc traced in other businesses, like desktop computers and solar panels. Chinese companies acquire the latest Western technology by various means and then take advantage of government policies to become the world’s dominant, low-cost suppliers.

Blattman then goes on to deconstruct this narrative, noting that “there is nothing dark or nefarious here [just] good hold fashioned industrial policy at work.” He notes that the story of Chinese development-through-copying echoes previous patterns of development, including Europe in the 19th century, Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and the Asian Tigers in the 20th century.

Indeed, copying has long been a tool for developing countries to catch up with the industrial leaders of the day. For this reason, developing countries often afford much weaker intellectual property protection than developed countries. Weak IP protection, in other words, was frequently used as a developmental tool. As the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment noted in a 1986 report,

There have been political tensions between nations whose role as producers of intellectual property allowed them greater access to such products, and nations that imported technology products, and had only limited access to them.  When the United States was still a relatively young and developing country, for example, it refused to respect international intellectual property rights on the grounds that it was freely entitled to foreign works to further its social and economic development.

Ironically, however, today weak IP protection is often cited as a significant barrier to technology transfer. Further complicating the situation, the development of a uniform system of intellectual property protections deployed globally through the World Trade Organization also serves to preclude this avenue of development-through-copying.

Of Cotton Subsidies and Essential Medicines

On Monday, the World Trade Organization [glossary] granted partial approval to Brazil’s proposal to impose countervailing sanctions against U.S. goods after the United States failed to comply with an earlier order to end illegal subsidies to cotton farmers. The ruling is the latest development in a trade dispute that stenches back several years. In 2002, Brazil failed suit against the United States, claiming that U.S. subsidies [glossary] to cotton farmers violated WTO rules and cost Brazil more than $3 billion per year in revenue lost due to distorted global prices. Brazil won its case in 2004, but the U.S. Congress has been slow to remove the subsidies.

Under WTO rules, Brazil would has the right to impose countervailing tariffs against U.S. exports to Brazil, up to the amount that the WTO certified Brazil is losing due to U.S. policy, in this case $3 billion. But for countries in the developing world, such an option is often unpalatable for two reasons. First, the imposition of tariffs could lead to higher consumer prices for goods, which can be politically unpopular. Second, the relative size of the markets means that Brazil’s loss of access to U.S. markets has a greater impact than the U.S.’s loss of access to Brazilian markets, even if the two losses are equal in absolute terms. Consequently, developing countries have made significantly less use of the WTO’s dispute resolution system and, even when victorious, have been more hesitant to use countervailing tariffs to enforce WTO decisions.

But Brazil’s proposal was an interesting one. After the United States continued to refuse to remove the trade distorting subsidies, it appealed to the WTO for an alternative recourse. Brazil proposed to impose the WTO penalty not by imposing tariffs on U.S. goods exported to Brazil, but by infringing patents on U.S. pharmaceutical products.

Brazil’s proposal is interesting in three respects. First, it makes the WTO’s dispute resolution system much more accessible to the countries of the global south. Enforcement, which has historically been difficult for countries in the global south, would be become more feasible. Second, it hits the United States in an area of much greater significance. The United States has long pushed for stronger intellectual property protections worldwide, campaigning against expanding the World Health Organization’s essential medicines list, for example. The political value of a ruling against U.S. pharmaceutical interests would be much higher as a result. Finally, and most importantly, such a ruling would link the agricultural subsidies dispute—which has been at the center of WTO talks in recent years—directly to the health and medicines debate. Farmers in the global south, whose lose an estimated $300 billion per year as a result of agricultural subsidies in the global north, could potentially benefit as a result of access to cheaper generic medicines manufactured in the global south.

So, on Monday, the WTO ruled. It denied Brazil’s request to bypass intellectual property protections, but confirmed that such a request could, in principle, be granted in the future. Indeed, last year, the WTO granted Antigua the right to do precisely that in its trade dispute over U.S. gambling laws. In the Brazilian case, the WTO decided that the current level of subsidies is not high enough to warrant such a radical step. A small victory for both sides, perhaps, but certainly a warning to the United States that intellectual property rights may be an effective tool to influence U.S. trade policy.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a week of surprises by the Obama administration. On Saturday, President Barack Obama nominated Jon Huntsman to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. Huntsman was a surprising pick. With his experience as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, his previous tenure as deputy U.S. trade representative and as deputy assistant secretary of commerce, and his fluency in Mandarin, Huntsman appears to be a solid pick. However, Huntsman is a Republican currently serving as governor of Utah, and has widely been viewed as a potential Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012. Obama last week also reversed his previous position in two controversial areas. First, on Friday, Obama announced the U.S. government would revive the military tribunals created by the Bush administration but suspended by Obama in January to try some 20 prisoners currently held at Guantánamo Bay.  Obama also changed position on the release of hundreds of photograps showing U.S. soldiers abusing detainees. Obama had previously promised to release such photos, but on Wednesday said that their release would “not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals” but would further enflame anti-American opinion and…put our troops in further danger.” The reversal was criticized by the American left, and even managed to draw a response from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  
In other news from the last week:

1. The Congress Party won a decisive victory over its rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s nation-wide elections Saturday. According to most observers, the election gives the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of center-left parties, a mandate to push ahead with a series of economic reform. Because most Pakistianis view Congress as less hawkish than the Hindu nationalist BJP, the election could also provide an opportunity to improve relations with Pakistan, which have been strained since the terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai six months ago.

2. Parliamentary elections in Kuwait were also completed on Saturday. The country has been paralyzed by a standoff between conservative Islamists in the parliament and the government which wants to move forward with economic reforms. Kuwaiti elections are unusual insofar as there are no political parties; candidates run as individuals without formal political affiliations. Historically, the parliament has been dominated by religious figures and tribal authorities who oppose the power of the central government. Kuwait formally extended the right to vote to women in 2005, and analysts had hoped that the expansion of the franchise might moderate the parliament. But while women were elected to the national parliament for the first time in the country’s history—some sixteen of the 210 candidates for the 50 seat-assembly were women; and two women were actually elected into the parliament—the overall composition of the parliament changed little. Analysts now fear that the standoff between the government and the parliament will continue into the next legislative term.

3. A political scandal rocked Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party in the United Kingdom last week. On Saturday, Labour suspended MP David Chaytor after it was revealed that he claimed £13,000 of taxpayers’ money for a mortgage he had already paid off. Chaytor was the second Labour MP suspended due to allegations of misuse of taxpayer funds. The scandal has also claimed one junior minister, Shahid Malik, who is being investigated by the parliamentary oversight committee for accusations that he violated the ministerial code. David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, has tried to seize the initiative, accusing the government of failing to provide sufficient oversight. But with members of his own party also accused of wrongdoing, some analysts believe the only real winners in the scandal are likely to be left-wing Liberal Democrats and the far-right British National Party, neither of which have been implicated in the scandal. With local and euro-elections scheduled for June 4, voters will not have long to wait to express their frustrations.

4. The fuel shortage in Nigeria—one of the world’s leading oil exporters—appears to be drawing to a close. A standoff between Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, and a group of powerful Nigerian business interests had led fuel importers to cut off supplies to the country. Fuel importers receive extensive subsidies from the Nigerian government to keep domestic fuel prices artificially low. However, as the subsidies have become increasingly expensive, the government sought to reduce their levels, sparking a confrontation with fuel importers, who receive approximately $5.5 billion per year from the subsidies. The Nigerian oil industry is the primary source of foreign exchange for the country, but has also been a source of considerable controversy.

5. After announcing plans to seize more than 60 oil-servicing companies last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continued his efforts to nationalize the country’s food industry last week. On Thursday, Chávez announced that the government would seize control of a pasta factory owned by the U.S. food producer Cargill. In March, the government seized a rice mill owned by Cargill, a Coca-Cola plant, and several other food factories. The government accused the companies of violating price controls aimed at controlling inflation and maintaining a sufficient national food supply. Cargill owns another 22 plants around the country, and the Chávez government warned the country that it could see further nationalizations within 90 days if it continued its “marked non-compliance with the law.” Venezuela currently suffers inflation of almost 30 percent and shortages of key staple foods are becoming increasingly common.

And in a bonus follow-up story this week:

6. Concerns over the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic appear to be waning, but several important stories nevertheless emerged last week in the wake of the crisis. First, the Mexican tourism industry is trying to encourage visitors to return to Mexico. Concerns over visiting Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, had led to a collapse of tourism in the country. The resort destination of Cancún, for example, is losing an estimated $6 million per day as a result of the downturn. To counter the decline, some Mexican resort destinations are now offering flu-free guarantees to lure back visitors.

And even more importantly, the H1N1 outbreak has also rekindled debates over the tradeoffs between intellectual property rights and the right to access essential medicines. The pharmaceutical giant Roche, manufacturer of the Tamiflu antiviral flu drug, has agreed to increase production. Roche currently sells Tamiflu for €12 ($16.30) per treatment for developing countries and€15 in developed countries. However, developing countries have been pushing the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify Tamiflu as an essential medicine, a move which would bypass Roche’s intellectual property claims and allow generic production to address public health concerns in the global South. Roche maintains that it can provide sufficient stockpiles of the drug to make such a move unnecessary. While the WHO has not yet issued its opinion, a leading Indian pharmaceutical company is nevertheless planning on moving forward with its plans to produce a cheap generic version of the patented Tamiflu drug, which its says it can sell for less than half the cost of the patented brand.