Presidential Messaging, Innovation, and Intellectual Property

Article excerpt

President Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union address emphasized encouraging innovation, which he believes is vital to keeping the U.S. a global leader. "We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world," said the president on Jan. 25.

"The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be or where the new jobs will come from. Thirty years ago, we couldn't know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution," Obama continued. "What we can do--what America does better than anyone else--is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We're the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It is how we make our living."

According to several analyses of the speech, most of Obama's remarks focused on improving the economy by "win[ning] the future." But in his speech, his blueprint for achieving this goal is to cut some domestic programs while increasing spending (or "investment," depending upon your political point of view) on "critical areas like education, high-speed rail, clean-energy technology and high-speed Internet to help the United States weather the unsettling impact of globalization and the challenge from emerging powers like China and India," as The New York Times reported in its Jan. 26 edition.

The Importance of Wording

I was drawn to the president's terminology. According to a Times speech pattern analysis of State of the Union addresses, Obama used "innovation" or related terms 11 times in his 2011 address--more than three times as frequently as any of his or any other president's State of the Union addresses. Obama's use of "innovate" matched his use of "deficit" (also 11 times) and was more than his use of "economy" (seven times). Only "jobs" (31 times) was used more in the 2011 address.

What does this mean? My take is that Obama's 2011 address was about promoting a vision of recovery ("economy") that reduces overall spending ("deficit") by working on developing and fostering the next big technologies ("innovation"), which will produce more jobs.

The president did not mention any specific form of intellectual property (IP) in his address, but he didn't need to. Anyone who has a sense of recent history or has read this column regularly is confident that IP protection was the proverbial pink elephant that cast a shadow over the president's address. Here is how this plays out.

"Innovation is the engine of the American economy." Since the 1980s, this principle has been at the center of American IP and trade policy. The simplest story is that U.S. policymakers and select corporate officials from companies such as Pfizer and IBM decided in the late 1970s that the nation no longer held the global edge in manufacturing and that IP would succeed manufacturing as America's primary revenue generator and export. Losing the manufacturing edge in the 1970s to Japan is significant even today: Note that Obama specifically identified China and India as "emerging powers" that are poised to threaten American dominance in the "innovation industries." Then, the threat was Japan; now it is China and India.

Lobbyists and executives from Pfizer and IBM focused on reforming patent laws so that American IP standards became the global norm. They did so through an organization called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiation (ACTPN). Concerned that patent issues would override copyright issues on the global agenda, lobbyists and executives for copyright portfolio owners developed their own bilateral strategy to strengthen international copyright laws. …