The recent debate over the need to reform, strengthen and generally reinvigorate intellectual property rights has taken on a stirring note, as IP champions have argued that we can innovate our way out of the current financial malaise that has blotted the economic performance of some of the world's most creative nations. With better IP protection, it is argued, there will be more investment in innovation, with the result that new jobs will be created, more people will be gainfully employed and paying taxes rather than living off them.
This argument is most appealing since it binds together all those things we hold dearest and, what's more, suggests a sort of virtuous circle in which the revenues generated by increased employment and the prosperity which accompanies it will likely be reinvested in the development of new IP-based products and processes, thus stimulating even fuller employment.
There is however one problem. The assumption that IP investment creates or even enhances employment is not self-evidently true but in need of verification—and this editorial doubts that it is true except on an ad-hoc basis.
If we recall the agricultural revolution which changed the face of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the prime effect of the investment in new means of performing agricultural tasks was to emancipate labour from the often back-breaking seasonal tedium of physical labour on the land, but its economic effect was to enable land to be husbanded and crops harvested through the use of a smaller labour force, not a larger one. Redundant labour, an impoverished drain on charitable resources in rural areas and without alternative prospects for work, drifted to the cities.
Next came the industrial revolution, when manufacturing machinery enabled the production of goods of higher quality and in greater quantity than those produced by the manual labour of skilled artisans. Excess production might have caused even greater local redundancy than it did, were it not for the potential for machine-made goods to be exported, thus exporting unemployment from the place of manufacture to the destination of imports. Automation has also reduced the vast numbers formerly needed in order to run a railway, deliver messages or man an army. Now, in the twenty-first century, much of the West lives in a post-industrial society which makes very little but instead provides an almost endless round of professional and other services.
The printing press was a great invention -- except for scribes
Within the field of the arts and culture, the impact of innovation has taken its toll on employment too. It has been said that, in the years following the introduction of the printing press to Venice in the second half of the fifteenth century, some 30,000 scribes lost their livelihoods. The same result must have occurred in other centres of book production, though not always on the same scale. Even in our own time, we have seen entire orchestras replaced by synthesizers that replicate the sound, tone and volume of the original with plausible accuracy. Where once live bands performed at parties, the sound recording, skilfully manipulated by a disc jockey, provides the entertainment. The onset of the social media has seen a similar shrinkage of gainful employment, as newspapers close, reporters dwindle in number and news is increasingly commoditised through the media of the weblog and social networks.
Where then is employment created? A cynic will point to the sweatshops of the developing world to which labour-intensive manufacturing work has been outsourced, or to the coffee plantations which are kept busy by the demands made upon them through another successful intellectual property device—the branding of commodities so as to make them particularly valuable in the eyes of Western consumers.
But we should not be cynical, we should just be honest. Intellectual property, and investment in it, is a good thing in itself: it increases choice and meet demands in a way in which nothing else can. We must not however allow false claims to be made for it. If IP creates employment, let's show how and where it does so".