IP Commission doesn't look at more than IP – unfortunately

Earlier this week, the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property issued its report. The Commission, a independent group, found that international infringement of US intellectual property (IP) — “theft” — is a $300 billion problem.
Regrettably, the report perpetuates the misunderstanding that intangibles equals IP:

According to a figure cited in the president’s 2006 Economic Report to Congress, 70% of the value of publicly traded corporations is estimated to be in “intangible assets,” that is, IP.

No – the 70% covers all forms of intellectual capital and intangibles. Some are covered by intellectual property rights; others are not.
This is an unfortunate missed opportunity. By equating intangibles solely with IP, the Commission was unable to fully develop the richness of understanding that the topic deserves. For example, the discussion of trade secrets dances around the issues of human capital, knowledge sharing and technology transfer that come with running a multinational corporation.
Interestingly, one of the short term recommendations comes directly out of broader concept of intangibles and human capital. The report recommends the expansion of work visas (green cards) for STEM university graduates — noting that many of these students are forced to return home after graduation:

Many of the 77,000 graduates who return home every year have knowledge of American intellectual property, gained in the course of their studies or in internships during their time in the United States. This intellectual property is of great benefit to foreign companies, enabling them to more quickly and effectively compete with American companies, both in overseas markets and even in the American market.

In other words, this leakage of human capital represents a form of loss of IP. Good point. But it represents a massive extension of the definition of IP to cover all human knowledge. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would argue for never allowing any visitor to gain access to any US-created knowledge. It would also argue against all of the student, business and academic exchange programs that we have set up expressly to learn from others. A broader focus on intangibles and intellectual capital would have allowed for a more complete discussion of this issue (and others like it) without having to inappropriately shoe-horn it into the IP framework
Thus, the work of the Commission is incomplete. A focus on fostering US of the intellectual capital is needed to expand on the Commission’s work. I look forward to hearing about the formation of the Commission on the Fostering of American Intangible Assets.

And how intangible make the US a good place to locate

And in another story, here is a great example of why the new model of manufacturing and innovation will revitalize US industry (Motorola to open Tex. factory):

Motorola Mobility officials said they see significant business logic to having a factory close to the engineers who are designing a new flagship smartphone and the customers they hope will buy it. Officials say it aids innovation while allowing for leaner inventories and lower shipping costs.
“Doing that work of actually assembling the phone close to home will allow us to fix things faster, innovate faster,” said Dennis Woodside, chief executive of Motorola Mobility, a division that was bought by Google last year for $12.5 billion.

Close relations and tight links between engineers, manufacturing and customers — sound like a key relationship intangible asset. This is what is driving competitive advantage — not what some politicians claim about low regulation and “business environment”.

What the Chinese are buying

Skipping directly to the punchline: intangibles and knowledge. That is what the Chinese companies are buying with their purchases of U.S. companies — including the proposed purchase of Smithfield Foods by Shuanghui International. As a recent Washington Post article pointed out, Smithfield has the brand and the technology:

[Smithfield] has developed genetic strains that the company’s annual report promotes as “the leanest hogs commercially available.”
In the largest single Chinese purchase in the United States, that history and know-how will be absorbed into a firm that has its own global ambitions. Officials of Shuanghui, already the largest pork producer in a nation where pork consumption has exploded in tandem with national income, have said that they want to make their company one of the premier meat producers in the world.

And, as the article goes on to say:

The deal comes amid a record flow of investment by often cash-rich Chinese companies into the United States. While Chinese firms have taken over some well-known U.S. brands, including the AMC theater chain and IBM’s personal computer business, the Smithfield acquisition is the first major foray into the food industry and the most significant in terms of a daily consumer item.
Thilo Hanemann, a Rhodium Group analyst who tracks Chinese investment in the United States, said the deal represents an emerging strategy of Chinese companies to buy up market-leading expertise — whether the insight an AMC has into running a national theater chain or the skill Smithfield has in raising, slaughtering and processing pigs.
In many cases, he said, “Chinese companies are buying assets in the U.S. not to expand in the U.S., but to gain a competitive edge at home.”

In other words, the Chinese economic strategy recognizes the importance of intangibles and knowledge assets as the drivers of competitive advantage. U.S. policymakers need to understand the same.

Motivation for voluntary corporate disclosure about human capital

Here is an interesting study on corporate reporting: “Factors explaining the level of voluntary human capital disclosure in the Brazilian capital market“. The study used content analysis of corporate annual reports to measure the level of “Human Capital Disclosure” based on 30 indicators. This work builds on the previous work of C.B. Macagnan on the voluntary disclosure of information on intangibles by Spanish companies. I consider the findings of both studies as preliminary – but hint at interesting thoughts. For example, the level of debt seems to be a significant reason for additional disclosure. The age of the firms as well.
More important to me is the fact that these studies are being undertaken. This is a very fruitful line of inquiry and should help inform changes to corporate reporting, such as the International Integrated Reporting Framework (see previous posting).

Data needs for an evidence based policy on intangibles

Last week I posted an item on the new National Academies’ study on on Copyright in the Digital Era: Building Evidence for Policy. Today, I would like to follow up by highlighting one of the studies recommendations: the need for better data. The study notes that “the federal government needs to expand the collection of data on the digital economy as well as on intangible assets such as intellectual property holdings and their use.” To do so, they recommend an ambitious course of action:

Agencies such as the Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Science Foundation, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the Copyright Office should form an interagency group that, along with expert advisors, would study the advisability and feasibility of an ongoing and systemic national business survey of intellectual property. Like the Business R&D and Innovation Survey (BRDIS), the IP survey would include samples of businesses in the service and manufacturing sectors. It would probe uses (e.g., licensing) and holdings of intellectual property and costs of acquisition and maintenance. Because of the nature of the production of digital goods, including the prominence of user-generated content, the business survey should be complemented, if at all feasible, by a detailed consumer survey of user-generated content and use. This would include, among other things, measurement of the amount of production and distribution of digital content by non-business entities (i.e., by users), and also measurement of the consumption of such content by both business and the population at large.

Readers of this blog will know that I routinely call for better data on intangibles. As I pointed out recently in our analysis of the federal budget, government statistics are a key intangible asset. The importance of that data was highlighted in a Washington Post story on attempts by conservative activists to kill off a key government data collection activity. It is not just government programs and policy making that is tied to this economy data. Companies, such as Target use the data for key business decision.
Our need for more and better data is even more accute in the I-Cubed (Information-Innovation-Intangibles) Economy. As noted in our 2005 study Reporting Intangibles: A Hard Look at Improving Business Information in the U.S.:

American businesses, investors, regulators and policymakers are flying blind. The United States is now in an intangible economy, but financial reporting and accounting systems can’t deal with intangibles. Our business reporting system is, in many ways, not even adequate for the Industrial Age, let alone the Information Age. As a consequence, business, investment and economic policy decisions are being made “in the dark” (to quote the title of a recent study).

The situation has gotten somewhat better–at least in awareness. Starting this summer, the BEA will start counting R&D as an intangible investment rather than an expense in the GDP data. On the company side, a group known as the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) just released their Consultation Draft on the International Integrated Reporting Framework — which includes specific breakout for intangibles: human, social and intellectual capital (see previous posting).
The National Academies’ call for improved data on how companies treat their copyright and other intangible assets is one more step in the right direction.

Labor force participation rate still low

The April employment numbers are causing some relief among economy-watchers with an increase of 165,000 new jobs and a slightly down tick in the unemployment rate to 7.5%. But, as I pointed out last month (and others have commented upon since), the size of the labor force is not growing and the labor force participation rate is stuck at a 35 year low. The labor force participation rate actually peaked in 2000, long before the Great Recession (although it started its steep decline then).
So I repeat my questions from last month. Are we seeing a reversal of the historic trend of a growing labor force due to greater participation? Is a lower labor force participation rate the new normal? And what does that mean for future economic growth?
Labor force - through 4-2013.png
Labor force participation rate - through 4-2013.png

Crafting an evidence based copyright policy

The National Academies’ Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy (STEP) has just released a new report on Copyright in the Digital Era: Building Evidence for Policy. The report takes a step back from the copyright debate to ask the important question about what do we actually know about the implications of copyright policy.
Their answer is not encouraging:

This debate is poorly informed by independent empirical research. Although copyright law’s efficacy and second order effects are largely empirical questions amenable to systematically collected data subject to transparent analytical methods, this type of analysis is too rarely conducted. Instead of asking, “What is the research-based evidence?” partisans tend to rely on claims of and evidence marshaled by stakeholders. This situation contrasts with the emerging pattern in patent policy discussions, where empirical research has begun to play an important role in the genesis and resolution of important policy changes and whose support is becoming institutionalized.

The report lays out a series of research questions and data collection efforts. Importantly, it spells out the benefits to all parties of an evidence-based policy approach:

With respect to changing incentives for creators, distributors, and users, research could help determine
    •  how the expenses involved in creative expression and distribution differ across sectors and the role of copyright in generating revenues to offset those expenses;
    •  under what circumstances sources of monetary and/or non-monetary motivation outside of that provided by copyright are effective in motivating creative activity;
    •  the motivations of various types of users and potential users of creative works, including both infringers and lawful users; the effects of enhanced enforcement remedies on promoting creativity, technological innovation, and freedom of expression; and
    •  how the costs of distributing creative content are affected by social media and other new technologies.
With respect to the enablers of and impediments to voluntary licensing transactions in copyrighted works, research would help determine
    •  the significance of transaction costs as barriers to utilization of copyrighted works;
    •  the extent of problems involving orphan works (whose owners cannot be identified), user-generated, content, and collaborative and iterative works;
    •  what are successful arrangements for managing transaction costs;
    •  the roles of public and private institutions in facilitating licensing;
    •  the relationship of transaction costs to legal rules such as compulsory licenses; and
    •  changes in transaction costs with new technological and business developments.
With respect to the enforcement challenges, research could help determine
    •  how much is spent by governments and private parties on copyright enforcement;
    •  against whom enforcement efforts are targeted and what remedies are sought and granted;
    •  the results of enforcement efforts in terms of compensation, prevention, education, and deterrence;
    •  how the effectiveness of enforcement efforts is changing with the expansion of digital networks;
    •  the costs and benefits of current enforcement methods vis-à-vis those associated with proposed new enforcement methods;
    •  the relative vulnerability of different business models to infringement; and
    •  the costs and benefits of fair use exceptions and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) safe harbors.
In assessing the balance between copyright protection and the statutory exceptions and limitations to copyright, research could help determine
    •  the costs and benefits of copyright exceptions and limitations in terms of the economic outputs and welfare effects of those individuals, businesses, educational institutions, and other entities that rely on them;
    •  how copyright and the various categories of limits and exceptions interact with innovative and/or disruptive technologies and platforms; and
    •  what adverse effects, if any, exceptions and limitations have on copyright holders and their potential to generate economic outputs and welfare effects.
Eventually, research will help inform decisions about key aspects of copyright policy, including
    •  the appropriate scope of copyright protection;
    •  the optimal duration of the copyright term;
    •  the best arrangements for correcting market imperfections that inhibit voluntary licensing;
    •  appropriate safe harbors and fair use exceptions to copyright;
    •  effective enforcement remedies for infringing use and the best arrangements for correcting deficiencies in enforcement mechanisms;
    •  the advisability of reintroducing a formal registration requirement; and
    •  the advantages and disadvantages of reshaping the copyright regime with different rules for different media.

In a time when much of our policy debate seems to be driven by ideological stances, the report’s arguments for policy grounded in empirical research is a welcome change. I expect many of the partisans in the copyright debate will take issue with the National Academies’ recommendations. That should not stop the rest of us from supporting the report’s findings.