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Ladder pulled

Brian D. Voyce refers to examples of how the United States vigorously enforced patent protections for U.S. citizens protecting U.S. patents in the late 1800s (Backtalk, Dec. 20, 2006). However, to understand the role of intellectual property protections and the developing world today, we should consider how the U.S. treated foreign patents when we were a developing nation, not how we treated our own patents.

When the United States and most now-developed nations were the developing world, we regularly took advantage of foreign technology advances without regard to intellectual property rights.

In fact, it was American policy. In his Reports of the Secretary of the Treasury (1791), Alexander Hamilton argued that foreign competition would prevent the creation of new industries in a developing nation. Therefore, the United States should, Hamilton suggested, implement a range of protections against foreign products overwhelming America's "infant industries." Hamilton suggested trade barriers, subsidies and import duties.  In short, Hamilton argued that free trade hurt developing nations.

Likewise, as a developing nation, Americans felt it our right to use the intellectual property of more developed nations to our advantage. Before 1836, as pointed out by Ha-Joon Chang in his book Kicking Away the Ladder, it was common practice for Americans to patent imported technologies and profit from them.

Other now-developed nations had similar practices. In 1869, the Netherlands abolished patent protection altogether. Only in 1907 did Switzerland start effectively protecting foreign patent rights.

Trade barriers and the use of foreign patented technology are two of the rungs that we, and many now-developed nations, used to climb the ladder of development. As these rungs have largely been cut by recent World Trade Organization agreements, open-source represents one of the few remaining technology transfer alternatives for the poorer citizens of the world.

Robert Malkin


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