America faces an increasingly complex security environment. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria pose immediate challenges, of course, but China’s rise, Russian foreign policy, and inharmonious relations with countries like Iran and Venezuela raise larger questions. Fashioning a responsible national security agenda requires a multipronged approach.
One facet of American national security that has been largely overlooked is the issue of intellectual property policy. One might think that intellectual property issues are far removed from national security matters, but that it is not the case. Our strength as a nation flows in large part from our economy. Our economy depends on technological progress and our ability to innovate. And our ability to innovate is linked directly to strong intellectual property rights. Thus, intellectual property and national security are two critical issues that are joined at the hip.
America became the world’s superpower due to its unsurpassed economic growth — fueled in no small part by strong intellectual property rights. Our success reflects a deep-rooted conviction that property rights drive competition, invention and ingenuity. That principle appears in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) and reflects the views of our Founding Fathers. As Thomas Jefferson observed: “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.”
The United States has championed intellectual property rights on the world stage. The results of our innovation policies, centered on our strong patent system, speak for themselves. Today’s global technology leaders include a laundry list of American companies: IBM, Microsoft, Google, General Electric, Apple, Intel, and the list goes on.
Despite the superlative record of U.S. innovation, a movement is underway to weaken intellectual property rights. Some commentators wish to abolish patents altogether. Such an outcome would wreak economic havoc. Companies won’t spend money on research if others can promptly steal their hard-earned ideas. Although people and companies innovate for many reasons, intellectual property rights often spur research and development and can be an essential cause of innovation. If the government took away property rights, innovation would grind to a halt in important segments of the economy. Fortunately, the patent abolitionists remain at the fringe of the debate.
Also worrisome are proposals to hinder patent owners from stopping infringement. A challenging environment for patent rights could be a harbinger of diminished U.S. competitiveness and innovation. While there are some problems with the patent system, we should proceed cautiously and consider the incentives driving those who champion the dilution of patent rights. Of course, firms advocate for policies that promote their interests. Net users of technology call for diluted intellectual property rights, while companies that depend on strong patent rights argue for the opposite position. Yes, some real problems afflict today’s patent regime, but we should be wary of calls for aggressive limits on patent rights. We worry that some overreaching cries for change have gained traction because advocates couch their proposals as responses to real issues in the litigation system.
The proper response is incremental adjustment. Lawmakers engaged in patent reform should strive to limit abuses without compromising the incentives to invent that patents contribute to the economy. As they try to achieve that delicate balance, they should be mindful of patents’ long-running contribution to America’s world-class innovation platform.
It is also important to remember that the United States has been the flag-bearer in protecting inventors’ rights. That approach has served America well. Our system of government — and its celebration of individual autonomy — has created the most powerful and innovative economy that the world has ever seen, and a model for others to emulate.
Many emerging countries are approaching a crossroads where they must decide whether and how to transition to a knowledge-based economy. To make that conversion, countries must encourage their domestic industries to invest in research and development. But firms will not do so absent robust intellectual property protection. Inevitably, governments will look to the United States. If they see an ever-more-innovative economy, which remains the envy of the world, then they may appreciate the importance of strong property rights. Yet, if we start to dilute our own intellectual property system, not only may our long-term economic growth suffer, but we would send the wrong message to emerging countries. A rejection of strong intellectual property rights in America would encourage wholesale disregard of U.S. proprietary rights overseas. Whether from the perspective of national security or innovation, such an outcome would be tragic indeed.
• Maureen K. Ohlhausen is a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. Dan Schneider is the executive director of the American Conservative Union.