I certainly hope that Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez misspoke (dontcha love these bureaucratic words?) when he announced this week that President Bush has made fighting the theft of intellectual property "a top priority throughout the administration."
I'm a writer, so of course I'm all for protecting intellectual property. And sometimes I feel like I am in a distinct minority when I point out that downloading songs off the internet without paying for them is stealing! (Yes, it is!) I like a deal as much as the next person, but if creative people can not make a living off their work, then they might cease to create, and then there won't be any new music, or at the very least, we'll face a limited selection. Extrapolate away to other creative endeavors, be it movies, software or patentable enterprises. Less would not be more in these cases. We want options, and lots of them.
And more often than not, I'm okay with government intervention, be it through new laws or regulations, if that's what it takes to punish criminals or get bad corporate behavior back on track. "Fear of Gov" is a mighty powerful stimulant.
But not this time.
First of all, I can think of many more problems facing this country that ought to be in the running for "top priority" right now, such as Iraq, the ballooning deficit, the crisis in heathcare, the crumbling public school system and Katrina recovery efforts, and by definition, you only have a limited number of top priority slots. From a purely high-tech standpoint, we can start with education and employment, cyber security and whipping Homeland Security into shape already. Launching an outreach program on IP for small businesses doesn't even get close to the top of my list.
Secondly, I think the response to the problem as outlined by Commerce completely misunderstands the underlying factors driving this activity.
And the "Global Intellectual Property Academy" that is supposed to educate foreign officials to our point of view on IP rights? Unless it means a junket to the U.S. (and probably on our dime) I don't see a big line forming to "get in."
I just don't think these people care. They might update their laws to make the U.S. government happy, but they aren't going to enforce them. In the poorest ones, coping with poverty and unemployment while trying to provide basic services such as education, healthcare and utilities, all while fending off dissidents and or rebel groups in some cases, keeps these foreign governments pretty busy.
Like it or not, counterfeiting activities employ people who might not otherwise be employed. It puts needed money into the economy. It gets technology, drugs and other needed and otherwise unaffordable products into circulation as well. And those products help in turn to make the country's workforce more competitive and more healthy. So where is the incentive for these countries to go out and stir up a hornet's nest domestically by cracking down on IP theft?
I also don't buy the idea that IP theft is condoned in some countries due to "cultural differences." I think these governments understand intellectual property alright, but they also resent their inability to gain access to that property. And if they have to do it via unethical or illegal means, well, so be it in their view. They don't want to fall behind any more than they are.
I'm not saying any of this is right - I'm just saying this is the reality. Which means the Commerce Department really needs to get back to basics here and focus on one of the all-time all-purpose rules in life - follow the money.
Because the one place where the critics are right, is when they talk about quid pro quo. Their point is that if we want these guys to crack down on counterfeiting and IP theft activities that in all likelihood benefit their people and their economy, then we have to make it worth their while to do so. In that vein, a solution that calls for a crash course in intellectual property rights coupled with some scolding monitors is ridiculous.
Instead, we need to do what some critics of this plan have suggested. We are going to have give money in some form--make up the difference essentially--in return for the cooperation of these nations. And even that won't solve this problem. It will only help on the federal level. What the underpaid policemen down in the trenches with the counterfeiters do is at the heart of this problem, and exerting some control over that is going to be a whole 'nother knocked-off Vuitton bag filled with counterfeit Gucci watches.
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