US Foreign Policy on Intellectual Property: Bilateral Trade Agreements

The United States has an aggressive foreign policy on intellectual property rights. The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) actively pursues bilateral trade agreements with a growing number of foreign nations to increase intellectual property rights in both the domestic laws of the US and the foreign nation.

Even though these bilaterals are agreements to create or increase monopolies over knowledge, they are often times mis-labeled by their backers as “Free Trade Agreements”. However, Nobel Prize winning Chief Economist at the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz commented that the US’ free trade agreements are “neither fair, nor free.”

US foreign policy on IPR consists of a basic “carrot and stick” approach to encouraging foreign nations to amend their domestic IPR laws. The “carrot” is providing favorable trading benefits and economic investment to the countries who comply with the USTR agenda on IPR. The “stick” involves placing countries on the “Special 301 Report” and pressuring them to sign bilateral trade agreements to enact the desired change in foreign law.

Given the substantial clout of the US economy and the need for other nations and their private firms to do business with US, it is often the case that those countries accept the USTR’s IPR policy in order to get better trade terms in other sectors of the economy. Many countries did this in the past without fully understanding how important IPR policy is to their own economies; and those decisions have begun to come back to haunt them. Many countries have found that extreme and restrictive IPR policies hamper their national economic development, particularly their ability to innovate and compete with US industry. Nevertheless, the short-term political advantages of favorable trade status with the US are difficult to balance against national long-term interests of a balanced IPR policy and a rich public domain. Eventually most countries must accede to the IPR policy demands of the United States and sign the bilateral agreement.

Once a country has signed a bilateral trade agreement with the US, it must enact and enforce domestic laws in accordance with that agreement (although in some countries, FTA’s become binding upon signing). Because IPR enforcement provisions are uniformly restrictive in these agreements, they undermine the incentive for countries to push for more balanced IPR policy in international arenas, because they will have already enacted unbalanced laws in their own nation and thus have nothing to gain in an international forum.

The US’ foreign policy to use bilateral agreements undercuts the worldwide push for more balanced IPR policy, as it systematically mutes voices for IPR balance in international fora.

United States Recent Bilateral Agreements on Intellectual Property Rights:

US Multi-Lateral Agreements on Intellectual Property Rights: