Vanderbilt Law Review


Keith E. Maskus

First Page



When the Uruguay Round negotiations began in 1986, the subject of intellectual property rights ("IPRs") was completely unfamiliar to international trade economists. Presumably the area was ignored because global trade policy concerns had not moved into questions of domestic business regulation. Even today, readers will search in vain for serious treatments of the trade implications of exclusive rights to intellectual property ("IP") in international economics textbooks.

Despite this general inattention, a small but growing literature has emerged in which trade economists have framed specific questions and applied theory and statistical analysis to them. This literature has advanced the understanding of the role of IPRs in the international economy from the realm of speculation to the boundary of hard analysis based on facts and evidence. It has demonstrated that it is possible to use data to assess hypotheses about the economics of global intellectual property protection. Prior to the construction of the evidence that is the subject of this Article, strong claims based on largely unexamined assumptions were made on both sides of the debate. Thus, for example, American trade authorities could push global negotiations on higher standards of protection by claiming that they would result in a long-term flowering of innovation and international technology transfer. Opponents could oppose such standards on the basis of fears that stronger IPRs would destroy channels of inexpensive access to technologies, medicines, and information products. Evidence suggests that there is some truth in both claims, but far more exaggeration.

In this Article, I provide an overview of what international economists have learned from studying IPRs in the global context. While progress has been made, many of the results remain subject to statistical and analytical uncertainty and wide areas of research remain insufficiently explored. There is much about the functioning of IPRs that we do not understand very well, particularly in the context of promoting economic development.