Intellectual Property protection appears to be one of Romney's current talking points not just in the trade relationship between the US and China, but in his plans for job creation. There is no doubt that companies that have many patents also employ millions of people in the U.S. There is not doubt that China constantly infringes on patents and violates international patent protection. However, it is less clear, at least to this old boy, how the second fact translates into job loss in the U.S.
There seems to be three kinds of protected IP. IP that is patented. IP that is copyrighted. IP that is trademarked. Each of these are governed by different processes and rules. Explanation of these processes and rules are not essential to the point I want to make here so I'll not go into them, other than to say that patents protect inventions; copyrights protect original authorship or production of material reduced to medium. whether that be written page, film tape, etc.; and trademarks protect original material reduced to medium that is linked to commercialization or commerce (e.g. the word Gatroade, the Nike swoosh, the Ford Mustang symbol). Sometimes things are both copyrighted and trademarked.
I think we have two rather different problems with the theft of patented IP vs. theft of copyrighed or trademarked. In the case of patented stuff such as electronics, pharmaceuticals and even some forms of software the thief either has to be able to reconstruct the product from the information contained in the patent, has to steal the methods through industrial espionage, has to get the product and reverse engineer it, or a combination of all three. This clearly is happening, but how is that costing large numbers of jobs?
The argument is that foreign countries, most notably China, then produce knock-off copies in their own country so, for example, chips that are patented in the U.S. by Intel are manufactured under another brand name in China and flood the world market. This clearly goes on, but how much impact does it really have on employment of the American worker compared to the effect of off-shoring labor? Very little. Increased protection of patented inventions will more likely serve the profit margin of the large multinationals with American names far more than it will serve the American worker.
Trademarks and copyrights are much easier to infringe. Asian countries are producing millions of units of knocked-off goods with names and trademarks like Gucci and Nike. No doubt about it. So let's say that we were able to stop this through a strong, enforced trade agreement with each of the Asian countries. Is this going to bring jobs in the textile and shoe-making industries back to the U.S. or is it simply going to increase profits for Nike et al. while they continue to manufacture in Asia? I think we know the answer to that.
Who's complaining the most about copyright infringement? It's the movie and recording industries. But their problems are really completely with foreign thieves. As recently was demonstrated they are contending with all of the interent. It's sort of ironic that at the base of that fight you have companyies like Facebook, Google and uTube who depend on patented software in a fight with other huge companies who depend on copyrighted media and the losers are once again the American public.
This will not be apparent from the above, but I am a strong proponent of IP protection. I managed IP as one part of my job for 14 years and was, frankly, pretty good at it. The point I really want to make is that American trade policy that promotes "free trade" with an emphasis only on international IP protection and not an equal on workers rights is not one that will ultimately make much change in the number of jobs or the compensation for American workers. It is a policy that will benefit companies with American names, not American workers. And it may even cost the American consumer more for certain classes of goods. Once quick example is the increase in the number of years that an invention is protected by a patent from 17 to 20. This happened a couple of decades ago and can be linked to trade agreements with Europe that included multinational pharmaceutical houses who found it much to their advantage to have longer patent protection. Now there is an additional 3 years before a generic manufacturer can produce a durg.
Romneys' concern for IP protection as a mainstay of his trade policy is simply a red herring.