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OPINION: Intellectual property protections will decide control of the 21st-century global economy

America is the world's most innovative country. Or at least it was.

Intellectual property protections will decide control of the 21st-century global economy

By many measures, that title now belongs to China. The authoritarian powerhouse issued more patents than the United States for the first time in 2019, and it has left us in the dust ever since.

In recent years, China has also outpaced the United States in the number of scientific publications published in peer-reviewed journals, the number of scientists and engineers graduating with advanced degrees, and other similar metrics.

The trends all point in the same direction: China aims to out-innovate the United States in the most critical technologies of the future.

Worryingly, those innovations will very likely determine control of the 21st-century global economy. In the past decade, China accounted for nearly three-quarters of all patents related to artificial intelligence. In biotechnology — Chinese firms now account for about 18% of cancer drugs in the early stages of development worldwide, triple their share in 2015.

Our economic and national security depend on retaking the lead — and keeping it. Unfortunately, instead of promoting policies that support and protect American innovators, many in Washington fail to acknowledge the inextricable link between innovation and intellectual property protections.

Strong IP protections deserve much of the credit for transforming the United States from a colonial backwater into the richest nation in the world. Our Founders saw patents and other IP protections as so important, they embedded IP protection into the Constitution itself.

It was a wise move. IP rules protect inventors — and their investors — from others stealing their work. Without copyrights, few authors or artists would pour their sweat and tears into creating masterpieces, since others could undercut them with impunity.

The same dynamic holds true across every IP-intensive industry. Broad fields of invention are highly risky, expensive, and failure-prone, yet easy to copy once the investment is made and the failures overcome. Without the temporary exclusivity afforded by intellectual property rights, America’s best and brightest would have no incentive to create new breakthroughs.

Historically, American workers and consumers have reaped rich rewards from America’s strong IP system. Our IP-intensive industries accounted for $7.8 trillion of GDP in 2019. And over the next decade, job creation in IP-intensive industries is expected to outpace other industries.

But this forecast is hardly guaranteed. Americans’ intellectual property is under attack from abroad and here at home.

This past summer, the Biden administration helped push through an initiative at the World Trade Organization to waive IP protections for the mRNA vaccines that saved millions of lives around the world.

In Congress, meanwhile, lawmakers have called on President Biden to effectively nullify the intellectual property of our nation’s top research universities – a move guaranteed to chill research benefiting many industries including climate, energy, and pharmaceuticals.

Weakening IP protections, or even stoking doubts about America’s commitment to strong IP rights, will hurt innovators raising venture funding, whether that innovator is an individual developing new cybersecurity tools, or a clean energy startup working to fight climate change.

We come from opposite political parties — but we’ve both dedicated our adult lives to promoting and protecting intellectual property. It’s the lifeblood of our economy. Any lawmaker who wants to increase innovation in the United States must understand the need for strong IP rights. They are inextricably linked.

Andrei Iancu and David Kappos are former Under Secretaries of Commerce for Intellectual Property and former Directors of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Both serve as board co-chairs of the Council for Innovation Promotion.