Despite continued political debates, most Americans today would agree that the United States remains an economic and innovative power player on the world stage. But how did we get here? And how do we go about maintaining that leadership? These are truly pivotal questions of our time. Today, World Intellectual Property Day, is the perfect time to address them.
The American economic landscape (and the technology shaping it) has changed dramatically over the last 200 years. We have moved from a system ruled by agriculture, and then manufacturing, to our current system dominated by information. Things that were once considered cutting-edge and game-changers in their day – the cotton gin, the Model T, the rotary telephone – are now relics of a distant past, replaced by much newer, faster, more impressive technologies.
But while the innovations found in American homes, on store shelves or on the online marketplace have changed, the business of American innovation remains the same. It is rooted in a strong intellectual property system that unapologetically protects the rights of creators and has propelled our nation to its place as a world business leader.
Just a glancing view of history reveals how the intellectual property system paved the way for a progression of follow-on inventions, creations and discoveries. George Washington, himself an innovator in agriculture, saw two foundational intellectual property laws enacted during his presidency. The Copyright Act of 1790 was drafted specifically “to promote the progress of Science and the Useful Arts.” After witnessing the benefits of the young U.S. patent system firsthand, Thomas Jefferson, initially an IP skeptic, declared that “issuing patents for new discoveries has given a spring to invention beyond my conception.”
Over the years, we’ve continued to witness how U.S. IP protections played a role in spurring even further development. For example, industrial designs gained U.S. IP protections in 1842, just five years before the birth of Thomas Edison, who gave us the lightbulb, the phonograph and the motion picture. And the practice of patenting plants that began in 1930 opened the door for the Green Revolution and new high-yield crops that have allowed us to feed an exploding global population. From Aspirin to artificial pancreas, medical research and development have exploded since the first medical patents were granted in 1796. Similarly, computer software was originally considered nothing but algorithms until the United States began covering it under IP laws in 1981. The browser on which you are reading these words, the navigation systems that will take humans to Mars; both are a direct result of that decision.
Our intellectual property laws make the business of innovation possible. Although these laws require periodic updates to keep up with new technologies, entrepreneurs and startups continue to rely on a strong IP system to provide the very same certainty and stability they did 200 years ago. There’s a reason why every contestant on “Shark Tank” is asked about their rights and registration of the products, services and brands they bring before the sharks. It’s because the question of IP is absolutely essential to the success of the life-changing, dynamic-shifting innovations they are seeking to market. The future solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems; the fate of entire industries; and the health and well-being of millions: all depend on an unwavering commitment to this business of innovation.
The American IP system hasn’t just delivered life-improving solutions – it’s also improved the livelihoods of millions upon millions of Americans. One need look no further than the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce: IP supports more than 45 million – or almost one in three – American jobs. Those jobs are found in 81 different industries in every county, in every state across the nation. And they pay: Salaries in IP industries average as much 42 percent more than other sectors.
Innovation is also America’s greatest asset on the global stage. IP-focused industries are responsible for more than half of U.S. exports and almost 40 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. But the benefits go both ways: Our innovative products have not only yielded a wealth of returns for the U.S. economy, they have also improved the lives of billions around the globe and provided a model for which most countries aspire to follow.
This World IP Day it’s important to give credit where credit is due. IP has played a significant role in making America the economic and innovative powerhouse it is today, and making possible the innovations that have improved billions of lives at home and around the globe.
We must also remember that innovation doesn’t just happen. To quote Twitter co-founder Biz Stone: “Timing, perseverance, and 10 years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.” The significant investments that are made in our innovative economy must be rewarded with an equivalent commitment to protecting intellectual property. We must continue to invest in the system that has empowered generations of American innovators and creators and that will continue to empower those for generations to come.
Mark Elliot is executive vice president of the Global Intellectual Property Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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