Friday, 11 October 2013

European Commission leaflet: "Intellectual Property Rights - Europe's asset, Europe's priority

I came across this leaflet via an RSS feed, I think, and rather wish I hadn't bothered. Why on earth is the Commission churning out guff like this at taxpayers' expense? It looks like a rather oversized tri-fold leaflet, and I cannot begin to imagine what the audience for it is supposed to be. It doesn't have a lot of words in it, consistent with modern attention-spans, but those that it does have are rubbish. Commissioner Barnier, who should know better, seems to be saying:
Intellectual property (IP) is the backbone of a competitive European economy, creating jobs and bringing innovative products and services to consumers and companies.
Let's just deconstruct that ... Well, the first thing to annoy me is that the author (and let us assume that the Commissioner did not write it himself) subscribes to the defined-terms-in-brackets school of drafting, even when what goes into the brackets is an abbreviation that no-one is ever going to mistake for something else. Not sure about the backbone metaphor, but let's not fall out over that - especially when once we are past that we are into serious, industrial-strength nonsense.

Consider those claims for intellectual property:
  • '... creating jobs...' How does that work? Jobs can only be created by employers. Those employers might have businesses that rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on intellectual property, but that is at least one stage removed from the IP creating the job. IP can't create anything: it just is. By being, it might contribute to an environment in which jobs are created. Equally, abolishing intellectual property would create a lot of jobs, but they wouldn't be created by the absence of IP, they would be created by enterprising businesses making all the things that intellectual property rights previously prevented them from making: pharmaceuticals, DVDs, handbags and the like. Not an attractive proposition, but possibly as effective (or more so) as a job creation measure as strong IP rights.
  • '... bringing innovative products and services ...' Here's a classic illustration of the dangers of generalising about IP. Trade marks have an effect on how goods and services get to market, and what happens when they get there, but there is no way in which they affect how innovative the goods and services are. And of course copyright has nothing to do with innovation, though we can concede, can't we, that creativity is not a million miles removed from innovation, so in a piece of non-legal writing it might be allowed. But that still leaves my biggest objection, the allusion to the magical powers of any legal right to deliver anything to anybody. No, the mere existence of intellectual property rights doesn't do that. It takes a James Dyson to innovate, and the business he built to bring new vacuum cleaners to the market. Without intellectual property rights he might never have started, or he might have contented himself with his Hoover Junior vacuum cleaner modified to generate cyclones and therefore much more effective than it had been when it left the Hoover factory - but to ascribe to IP the magical power to do all that: well, it's a bit of an insult to inventors, isn't it? Actually, more than a bit of an insult.
  • '... to consumers and companies.' The problem is, you start off something like this and it just has to be a three-part list. I think it's a well-known fact in rhetoric, and I remember reading it in Max Atkinson's 1984 book, Our Masters' Voices, which also taught me about the value of the pause in a speech - a literal claptrap, an indication to the audience that you have reached a point when applause would be appropriate - and which I used to telling effect in a speech to Conservative Party conference in 1983, except for the fact that I hadn't paused to invite applause, I had paused while I worked out what to say next. But it certainly worked. Anyway, this third part of the three-part list is here to make up the numbers, though it's worth observing that any benefit that does not trickle down to consumers is hardly worth having.
The stuff inside the leaflet reads like a conventional justification for the intellectual property system, adapted perhaps to the purpose of justifying the continued and expensive existence of the European Commission - it can hardly be said that without the Commission there would be no IP - nor even that without the EU it would be lacking. But that leads me to the last thing that irritates me about this leaflet: its title refers to 'Europe's asset, Europe's priority'. Another instance of the expansionist Commission speaking for all those countries which aren't part of the Union. It could almost make me wish the UK was among them.

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