“Happy birthday to you,
“Happy birthday to you,
“Happy birthday, dear reader,
“Happy birthday, to you.”
That’ll be 1,500 bucks. Or, if the schemers of the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP) have their way, 956,032 Chilean pesos, 4,748 Peruvian Nuevo Sol or 186,397 Japanese yen.
The “Happy Birthday” song was written in 1893 but remains under U.S. copyright. The owners send a bill anytime a television producer, movie director or radio D.J. plays the song for commercial purposes.
The promise of a fast, up-or-down vote on TPP, wrestled though Congress last month, means “amount due” notices soon could have teeth in Mexico, Latin America and Asia, as well. Irksome intellectual property laws, made in the USA, soon may be imposed on 40 percent of the world’s economy.
It’s only fair. The copyright preserves creative incentives for the sisters who wrote the song when Chester A. Arthur was president. Or that’s the claim. We’re still waiting for the composers’ next hit.
American intellectual property rights — let’s call them what they really are, government-enforced monopolies — could be about to go global. For our nation’s most wealthy, that’s terrific news. To them, the trade deal isn’t about freer trade. It’s about keeping the toll booth open, collecting on ideas.
It’s one way wealth flows uphill in America’s top-heavy distribution of income.
In the case of patents, copyrights and trademarks, the trade deal is all about extending protectionism, not reducing it.
For America’s middle class, they can expect next to no benefit. For the world’s poor, the spread of this country’s perverse intellectual property laws could be yet another bad break in life.
Opponents of a rush up-or-down vote on a new trade deal have it right. Congress should be in no hurry to approve fast-track negotiations on a trade compact between the United States and 11 other countries whose shores touch the Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately, the foes of the TPP get many of their arguments wrong. As a consequence, much of the debate has shifted away from the sweet, creamy nougat at the center — the “intellectual property” confection that promises the biggest payoffs in the proposed treaty. The leaked outlines of those provisions should claim the focus of the congressional deliberations.
That’s not the way it’s gone, however.
False signals on jobs
Said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: “Think about that. Real people, people whose jobs are at stake, small-business owners who don’t want to compete with overseas companies that dump their waste in rivers and hire workers for a dollar a day — those people, people without an army of lobbyists — they would be opposed.”
Do reduced trade barriers kill American jobs? The evidence for that claim is weak. True, this country, in May, had 12.3 million manufacturing workers, down more than 4.4 million from 1993, the year the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect.
Technology, far more than trade, accounts for the change. Manufacturing and service industries produce goods and services with fewer people — thanks to robotics, computer applications and the Internet. Labor productivity in the U.S. auto industry is more than double the rate today than in 1990.
Retailers struggle with customers shifting from bricks and mortar to online shopping. Newspapers, magazines and television have been crippled by new players drawing away advertisers and audience attention. Try to find a photo finisher to develop Kodachrome. Indeed, try to find Kodachrome. Foreign rivals haven’t driven turmoil in these industries.
Losers inevitably get more attention than winners.
Part-making in places like El Paso, Texas, would not exist without “twin” assembly plants in Mexico. It’s a good bet that factories in Mexico get more disapproving visits from members of Congress than their twin counterparts in the U.S.
Idled middle-class workers lost billions in highly competitive fields such as autos, steel and textiles. But billions more were saved by consumers filling their carts with foreign-made goods.
Worried about the flight of jobs and capital? Don’t keep or raise trade barriers. Instead, push Congress to change tax laws that allow corporations to hoard profits abroad or encourage companies to shift operations overseas. I’m talking about you, Medtronic. (That company’s CEO recently discovered his inner Leprechaun and relocated legal headquarters to Ireland in a restructuring/tax dodge.)
Fretting about the plight of U.S. workers? Toughen laws that impede union organizing and undermine labor bargaining power. A lot of the decline in unions is Made In America.
The clean air/water smoke screen
What about international forums imposing dirty air and filthy water on the United States, as a way of “harmonizing” environmental standards among the dozen countries covered by TPP?
That seems highly unlikely. U.S. clean-air and water standards have popular support, despite the best efforts of the Koch brothers and other 21st-century anti-breathing robber barons.
We have lived with NAFTA for 23 years. Environmental laws survive in this country, despite the best efforts of Republican and Blue Dog Democrat legislators and their puppet masters.
The ‘secrecy’ lament
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate, hits that theme hard. “It is incomprehensible to me that the leaders of major corporate interests are actively involved in the writing of the TPP, while the elected officials of this country have little or no knowledge as to what is in it,” Sanders said earlier this year.
Actually, trade talks are unlikely to be held in front of a sold-out house at Madison Square Garden or on the floor of Congress.
Such deals routinely are negotiated out of the public glare. It’s a different matter when the talks violate open-meetings law. (See: Vikings stadium negotiations. They produced a deal, rushed through the Minnesota Legislature, that even Vikings shill Gov. Mark Dayton claimed to not fully understand.)
Secrecy isn’t the problem. What’s in the deal is the problem. That’s why TPP foes are right, for the wrong reasons, about sidetracking fast-track, no-amendment approval for the pact. They need time to read and react.
Where the real money is
The Obama administration resorts to distraction to sell TPP. But some of its case-study examples are laughable.
For instance, Vietnam is not all that friendly to U.S. imports. Almost like it has a grudge. Can’t think why.
Anyway, the White House has highlighted the goal of getting Vietnam to lower or drop its 27 percent tariff on certain U.S. auto parts.
Pop quiz: How many kazillion cars will Vietnam be making to merit such White House attention? And (for extra credit) why wouldn’t Vietnam automakers buy from cheaper suppliers — China, India or Malaysia — even without a tariff on U.S. car components?
No, no, no. Don’t get lost in verbal misdirection.
The big bucks for those corporate lobbyists elbowing their way into trade talks can be found in extending U.S. patent, trademark and copyright protection to countries that have few or weak “intellectual property” laws.
Knockoff drugs encourage U.S. drugmakers to charge far lower prices in other countries than at home. TPP could be a means for Big Pharma to raise prices in other parts of the world, where people can ill-afford higher health care costs.
Companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Intel want to ensure that no one can duplicate their patent-protected products in other countries. But they make no mention of innovators who might be able to tailor to local tastes similar products — that is, unless TPP unleashes a phalanx of patent lawyers with orders to cease and desist.
Studio heads hope to recapture billions lost to bootlegged films and recordings. Yet few Americans shed tears at the thought of entertainers flying in small Lear jets rather than top-of-the-line Gulfstream G650s.
U.S. intellectual-property laws have become ludicrous engines of concentrated wealth. Bill Gates is the wealthiest man in America. Its greatest inventor? Hardly. He used intellectual-property laws that for generations neutered rivals, forcing them to sell out to Microsoft or shut down.
Other billionaires, who came to wealth through a similar path, may decry regulation and big government. But they rely on the FBI to haul away patent/trademark/copyright violators in handcuffs.
Rather than introducing common sense into label protection, TPP promises to spread the madness — stifling competition and independent innovation with a thicket of laws that favor “haves” over “have-nots.”
The life of a U.S. patent extends to 20 years. But minor changes in design, formulas and even packaging, promise new protection from competition. Decade after decade.
Trademarks get a decade of government protection, then are renewable, for 10 years ago at time. In effect, they’re perpetual.
Copyrights last for the life of the author, plus 70 years. It’s 95 to 120 years, in select cases.
A 1988 law change, informally called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” keeps Disney’s 87-year-old smiling rodent in the chips until 2023. Don’t bet against Disney’s mascot getting his ward-of-the-state status prolonged before that happens.
Mickey’s government protection has had enough birthdays. At $1,500 a pop, who wants to sing “Happy Birthday” again? It’s time to overhaul U.S. intellectual property laws, not extend them to trading partners.
Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a Minneapolis writer.