Economy & Budget

US trade rep must secure our intellectual property rights

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Not only was Robert Lighthizer, President Trump’s nominee for U.S. trade representative, impressive at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month, his clear and unqualified statements about the importance of intellectual property (IP) protection in U.S. trade policy were both welcome and refreshing. 

When asked about the issue by Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Ambassador Lighthizer committed, “I promise a very robust protection for intellectual property rights.” He continued, “Anything less stifles innovation and science and compromises a competitive advantage of the United States.” Finally, he recognized that “innovation is the central nervous system of the modern economy.”

{mosads}He could not be more correct. Intellectual property-intensive industries support a total of over 45 million American jobs, and those jobs pay an average of 46 percent more than jobs in non-IP sectors. In addition, IP-intensive industries contribute a whopping $6.6 trillion to our national economy, including nearly $1 trillion in exports from IP-intensive industries.


The goal of U.S. trade policy is to eliminate unfair barriers and distortions to global markets for American products and services. There are Americans who argue against us protecting our IP rights overseas.

They transpose their ill-conceived IP policy goals on to trade policy, seeking to have the United States condone or even demand weaker protection for its innovators and creators overseas. This is the functional equivalent of a policy of U.S.-based innovators subsidizing foreign competitors and consumers at the expense of American jobs and economic growth. 

A lot of the ire about unfair foreign trade practices is directed at China. In the IP context, China has made some progress, but it continues to be the source of 90 percent of the products that infringe IP rights seized at our border.

Focusing only on China would miss some important and perhaps surprising problem areas. Some developing countries, like India, and even countries we think of as advanced, like Canada, have major IP deficiencies.

The U.S. seeks IP provisions in free trade agreements based on U.S. law; we ask our trading partners only to do what we do for ourselves. Unfortunately, other countries have been able to negotiate down from that high standard, allowing our free trade agreement partners to short-change our creators and innovators.

These American industries are the envy of the world, in large part because of our IP system. If they look at the long run, foreign governments do themselves a favor by creating an environment in which their innovative industries can flourish.

So, whether negotiating new agreements or updating existing ones, we should not agree to allow other countries to apply lesser standards than we provide to our creators and theirs, alike.

Finally, we need to hold other countries to the promises they made. Twelve months before Ambassador Lighthizer’s confirmation hearing, I was honored to have the opportunity to testify before the Senate Finance Committee, not as a nominee for a cabinet-level position, but as a former trade negotiator and expert on intellectual property.

I told the Committee that despite 30 congressional hearings about foreign IP inadequacies, no formal dispute has ever been initiated under the IP chapters of our free trade agreements.

This complacency not only costs American jobs, it encourages other trading partners to test our resolve further. So when Ambassador Lighthizer predicted, “I expect we’re going to have a very vigorous enforcement policy,” I cheered.  

President Trump wants to bring back American jobs. Proper protection of intellectual property is a key way to do that. It is clear that Ambassador Lighthizer will be a force for good, so I hope the Senate confirms him soon so he can get to work promoting the American creativity and ingenuity that defines the American spirit.


Steven Tepp is president & CEO of Sentinel Worldwide and a professorial lecturer in law at George Washington University Law School. Previously, he served as senior counsel for Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Copyright Office.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Economy of the United States Foreign relations of the United States Intellectual property law Office of the United States Trade Representative Orrin Hatch United States trade policy
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