Intellectual-Property Rights and Wrongs

Last October, the General Assembly of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) decided to consider what a development-oriented intellectual property regime might look like. The move was little noticed, but, in some ways, it was as important as the World Trade Organization’s decision that the current round of trade negotiations be devoted to development. Both decisions acknowledge that the current rules of the international economic game reflect the interests of the advanced industrial countries – especially of their big corporations – more than the interests of the developing world.

Without intellectual property protection, incentives to engage in certain types of creative endeavors would be weakened. But there are high costs associated with intellectual property. Ideas are the most important input into research, and if intellectual property slows down the ability to use others’ ideas, then scientific and technological progress will suffer. 

In fact, many of the most important ideas – for example, the mathematics that underlies the modern computer or the theories behind atomic energy or lasers – are not protected by intellectual property. Academics spend considerable energy freely disseminating their research findings. I am pleased when someone uses my ideas on asymmetric information – though I do appreciate them giving me some credit. The growth of the “open source” movement on the Internet shows that not just the most basic ideas, but even products of enormous immediate commercial value can be produced without intellectual property protection.

By contrast, an intellectual property regime rewards innovators by creating a temporary monopoly power, allowing them to charge far higher prices than they could if there were competition. In the process, ideas are disseminated and used less than they would be otherwise.