The Revenge of the Nerds, and Other Dispatches from the Intellectual Property Wars

A Global Currents Lecture Discussion with:

Susan K. Sell, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science and International Affairs
The George Washington University


Monday October 5, 2015, 4:00 p.m.
Tinkham Veale University Center, Senior Classroom

In the 1980s the United States government made negotiation and enforcement of strong “intellectual property” rights one of the guiding principles of its foreign policy. As industries such as steel and autos lost market share to competition from Japan and other east Asian nations such as Korea, massive trade deficits led to calls for protectionist policies. In order to resist those calls, policy-makers argued that the U.S. had a comparative advantage in innovative newer industries, such as pharmaceuticals and cultural products, which would generate exports and high-value-added jobs to replace the jobs being lost in “old industries.” But that required that innovation not be copied easily. So protecting the intellectual property from innovation became a rallying cry for policy-makers of both parties. The Clinton administration especially promoted this view as part of its “New Democrat” economic approach. And politicians were enthusiastically and in some cases financially supported by the industries which would have their profits protected if foreign competition were prevented.

As the U.S. government worked to globalize its intellectual property rules, it was supported by major corporations and in many cases governments from developed nations. The campaign proceeded through the WTO, the GATT, and many other venues. It was highlighted by the 1994 Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), but TRIPS, as Susan Sell argues, in retrospect was only a step in a much more extensive series of restrictions that have been achieved in a series of forums since.

Yet the campaign to strengthen intellectual “property rights” – and the attendant profits – has also met significant checks. The most substantial involved access to life-saving pharmaceuticals, symbolized by medications for AIDS. In 2001 the WTO Doha Declaration underscored countries’ rights to put public health before patents. In 2012, legislation to restrict downloading, streaming, and file-sharing on the internet was breezing through Congress, until it was suddenly swamped by a tidal wave of net-based protest.

The newest battle in the now nearly Thirty-Years War about intellectual property involves the Trans-Pacific Partnership. What might we learn from the past about what could happen next? To help us understand the battle and the war, we will be joined by Professor Susan Sell, one of the leading scholars of the conflict. Her works on the topic include Power and Ideas: North-South Politics of Intellectual Property and Antitrust (1998); Private Power, Public Law: The Globalization of Intellectual Property Rights (2003); Intellectual Property Rights: a Critical History (with Christopher May, 2005) and dozens of articles and book chapters. Private Power, Public Law has been issued in both Chinese and Korean-language editions. Join us as she discusses the defeat of the 2012 legislation in the “revenge of the nerds,” other key events, and the current prospects.

This program is made possible by the generosity of Ms. Eloise Briskin.


About Our Guest:

sell_susanSusan K. Sell is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. Professor Sell received her B.A. in political science from Colorado College, her M.A. in political science from the University of California – Santa Barbara, and her Ph.D. from the University of California – Berkeley.She serves on the Board of IP Watch, which is a web-based reporting service covering intellectual property ( She has served as a consultant for the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Center for Science and Technology for Development. Professor Sell teaches graduate courses in international political economy, and international relations theory. She also teaches an undergraduate international political economy course.

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