The history of “trade-related” intellectual property

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Did nineteenth century free traders hurt themselves by including intellectual property rights on their agenda? Does the WTO’s TRIPs provision risk repeating their error in the twenty-first century?

Why is intellectual property trade-related? In any case, should it be? The reassessment has been undertaken by advocates as well as skeptics of globalization…

The perceived connections between trade and one particular form of intellectual property—copyright—is especially worthy of historical scrutiny… International copyright was kept at bay in the United States until 1891… My premise is that the political and doctrinal allegiances of authors of arguments on both sides of the international copyright controversy matter because they reflect how, in the nineteenth century, intellectual property was “trade related.” Those who were at the vanguard of the movement for international copyright were also the leading advocates of free trade… Likewise, the principal articulators of the case against international copyright were also the foremost advocates of protection…

Free traders failed repeatedly for sixty years after the end of the Civil War to reduce the average tariff to its immediate prewar level. They failed despite making a case that, by comparison with the one made for free trade today, was compelling. Specifically, the principles of free labor engendered an antimonopoly argument for trade. Free trade, its advocates argued, would eliminate the special privileges granted to producers in specific industries, most notably cotton goods, iron, and steel. It would promote competition, lower prices, and raise consumers’ real incomes…

Carey attempted to turn the tables on the free traders: he argued that free trade promoted monopoly, and protection mitigated it. His conviction was sincere—but that particular part of his argument was unpersuasive, and relatively few of his followers bothered to repeat it. He was much more persuasive in arguing that international copyright promoted monopoly. In the face of the latter argument, the proponents of free trade and international copyright were put on the defensive…

One wonders whether the tireless advocacy of international copyright by free traders like Bryant—who framed the cause as one inextricably related to free trade—hindered the advancement of their principal cause. The long-awaited sweeping tariff reductions were deferred until 1913. Might the wait have been shorter if the antimonopoly credentials of the free-trade advocates had not been called into question?

That’s from Stephen Meardon, “How TRIPs Got Legs,” History of Political Economy, 2005. (Ungated 2004 working paper)

Read the full article for details of the arguments and some fascinating tidbits such as early 1800s free-trade poetry (so popular in Boston that they published a second edition!).

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