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Intellectual Property and Economic Development

WASHINGTON, DC – In his recent State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama reiterated his ambition to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement among the US and 11 Pacific countries. Meanwhile, the European Union and China are pressing to close their own deals in Asia and elsewhere. If these proliferating trade pacts are to spur virtuous cycles of growth for developing countries, they must not only reduce trade barriers; they must also build the institutional framework of a modern economy, including robust intellectual property (IP) rights.

Some activists and government officials get the relationship between strong IP protection and economic growth backwards, claiming that IP rights are an obstacle to development, and thus should not be enforced until after countries achieve high-income status. This attitude is particularly prevalent in India, which recently put trade negotiations with the EU on hold, and it was central to the failure of the Doha Round of global trade talks. As Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma put it, “inherent flexibilities must be provided to developing countries.”

But the bottom line is that the ideas protected by IP rights are the dynamo of growth for developed and developing countries alike. Instead of diluting IP rights, developing countries like India should recognize that strengthening IP protection is a prerequisite for attracting the foreign investment that they need to help their economies grow, create jobs, and improve their citizens’ capacity to consume.

Today, IP accounts for much of the value at large companies. One study found that in 2009, across a variety of industries in the US, intellectual capital – patents, copyrights, databases, brands, and organizational knowledge – held a 44% share of firms’ overall market value. Such companies have little desire to put their IP at risk of erosion or outright theft; they want to do business where they know that their IP is safe.