Wednesday, November 05, 2008

IP homework for Obama

The show is over and we finally have a winner, and the process of reuniting the US with the rest of the planet started even before that: it seemed quite clear that most non-Americans wanted Barack Obama to win the elections and, after 8 years of discrepancy, the American people concurred with the rest of the world. After the 21st of January president-elect Obama will have to deal with a couple of wars, international conflicts and a quite complicated economic/financial situation, but it will also have to deal with more mundane issues, which may have longer term effect on the rest of the world and in American competitiveness. One of them is IP policy and legislation.
It has been argued for quite long that IP policy and legislation in the US has been captured by a small group of lobbyists with very deep wallets, who then convinced Washington that those policies needed to be exported for the benefit of the country’s wealth and competitive advantaged, but that the real effect of the current IP policies has been, at best, completely unknown. The numbers and recommendations of those lobbyists and the “independent” researchers hired by them have been taken by successive governments at face value, without the state fulfilling its duty to act as an arbiter between competing interests and truly establishing the value of different assertions. It can be sustained with certain degree of certainty that the current level of protection for intellectual property rights benefits some companies (the same certainty could not be applied to whole industries) and that the real effect on countries wealth is uncertain. There enters president-elect Obama.
In a interview with the Rolling Stone magazine, the then candidate Obama responded affirmatively to whether legislation had been outsourced to private interest and also said that the degree to which the US had had “drug companies writing drug legislation, without regard for the public interest [had] to change”. He also referred to the need for a 21st Century New Deal involving the use of technology for people’s participation in government and have campaigned on a platform promising more funds for research and education. And all that leads to IP rights. The current, ideologically-charged lobbyists-created answer would be that more protection would be needed to ensure that the researchers get rewarded and more technology is developed…but is that true? Always not friend of anecdotal evidence, I need to say that while being in St Louis, MO, last year I met several of the most prominent people in industry and research dealing with biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, and off the record they recognized that they did not have an idea whether the increased protection had given them any benefits (it could be) but they were sure that it created an extra burden to navigate through the net of patents already existing. As said before in previous posts, it is to expect that after bailing out banks for hundred of billions, their claims of wealth-creation will not be taken at face value and, taking into account that the cost that IP protection represents for society (not only on enforcement but the more dynamic costs of tolerating a monopoly), the same should be applied to IP, which leads us back to the new president.
What would be a sensible agenda for IP? The first and more important measure, and the one that should precede setting up any agenda is to get the state to become a independent third-party assessing the real needs of the industries and society and the costs and benefit of each option, and for that the solution seems quite straightforward: president Obama’s IP policy should certainly start with a Gowers style assessment and report that clarifies the current state of the policy and legislation, considers the cost and benefit of different options and propose a way forward taking into account the interests of society and industries alike.

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