Slashdot, the technical news site, has a mixed reputation. Mostly, it's known as the abode of armies of Microsoft-bashing trolls with too much time on their hands, a domain of vitriolic, fact-free arguments and tired "In Soviet Russia..." jokes. But every so often, it throws up something really insightful, like this comment. It's a great, thoughtful post, and I recommend you read it; but I'll try to summarize anyway. It's an attempt at explaining why America (and, increasingly, Europe) is passing such ridiculously restrictive Intellectual Property (patents, trademarks, copyright) laws, such as the much-hated Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and why they're trying to force such laws on other countries using, for instance, the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The argument goes like this: in a fully globalized world, in which everything that can be outsourced has been outsourced, what remaining competitive advantage does the US still have? Well, there's lots of agricultural land, and plenty of natural resources, like coal and timber, but that won't finance American lifestyles, or anything close. Neal Stephenson hit this one on the head: the four things America's really good at are music, movies, microcode, and high-speed pizza delivery.
Let pizza delivery stand for all the service sector stuff that can't be outsourced, and expand "microcode" to include pharmaceuticals (which, by the way, dwarf the three M's as a source of revenue). Aside from the pizza delivery, these things are all IP-based. So it makes a naive kind of sense to force everyone to buy in to strong IP laws so that you can continue to sell them the only things you still seem able to make. To quote the linked article, "if you're a politician, grabbing onto intellectual property as the salvation of high-cost Western society probably isn't the stupidest thing you'll do all day."
[There are many problems with this approach, and even more with the details of the laws they've enacted. But the basic one is that all creativity comes from standing on the shoulders of giants, and strong IP law makes it much harder to do this. Far from protecting the goose that's laying the golden eggs, these laws are slowly asphyxiating it.]
Then it hit me: the way industries develop is by import replacement. You start by importing bikes, then you develop the expertise to make some of your own spares, then you start to make more and more spares yourself. Eventually you know enough to make a whole bike, and a few decades down the line you have the Japanese car industry (this actually happened). Currently, pharmaceutical companies in India, Sri Lanka and so on are reverse-engineering the drugs they need to control the AIDS epidemic: this has been a major bone of contention with WIPO and the US. I'd assumed this was because the US was concerned about Big Pharma's revenue streams now (hard to think anyone would shed a tear for some of the richest entities in the world, but apparently they would). Here's another interpretation: what the Indian pharmaceuticals industry is doing now is import replacement. This is stage 2 in the template above: give it a few decades like this, and India won't need to reverse-engineer US drugs, they'll be developing their own. Given that more movies are made in Mumbai than in Hollywood and that Western companies are increasingly outsourcing their coding to India, and I think you see where this is going: unless the third world can be stopped from developing their IP industries now, the US will be left with nothing but pizza delivery. The strong IP laws are not just a short-sighted, short-term extortion racket, they're a strategic move aimed at safeguarding long-term economic power. They're still doomed and short-sighted, mind, but they're doomed and short-sighted on a higher and more strategic level.
Then I remembered Hanlon's Razor: never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity :-)