Free trade is supposed to be a win-win situation. You sell me your televisions, I sell you my software, and we both prosper. In practice, free-trade agreements are messier than that. Since all industries crave foreign markets to expand into but fear foreign competitors encroaching on their home turf, they lobby their governments to tilt the rules in their favor. Usually, this involves manipulating tariffs and quotas. But, of late, a troubling twist in the game has become more common, as countries use free-trade agreements to rewrite the laws of their trading partners. And the country that is doing this most aggressively is the United States.
Our recent free-trade agreement with South Korea is a good example. Most of the deal is concerned with lowering tariffs, opening markets to competition, and the like, but an important chunk has nothing to do with free trade at all. Instead, it requires South Korea to rewrite its rules on intellectual property, or I.P.—the rules that deal with patents, copyright, and so on. South Korea will now have to adopt the U.S. and E.U. definition of copyright—extending it to seventy years after the death of the author. South Korea will also have to change its rules on patents, and may have to change its national-health-care policy of reimbursing patients only for certain drugs. All these changes will give current patent and copyright holders stronger protection for longer. Recent free-trade agreements with Peru and Colombia insisted on much the same terms. And CAFTA—a free-trade agreement with countries in Central America and the Caribbean—included not just longer copyright and trademark protection but also a dramatic revision in those countries’ patent policies.
Why does the U.S. insist on these rules? Quite simply, American drug, software, and media companies are furious about the pirating of their products, and are eager to extend the monopolies that their patents and copyrights confer. These companies are the main advocates for such rules, and the big winners. The losers are often the citizens in developing countries, who find themselves subject to a Draconian I.P. regime that reduces access to new technologies.Link