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Thaddeus Burns: IPR: The Backbone of U.S. Advanced Manufacturing

Thaddeus Burns Ge
February 21, 2013
Advanced manufacturing represents the future of the American economy if we embrace it.  Powered by intellectual muscle, advanced manufacturing demands constantly reinventing the way we make things.  The regular deployment of new and disruptive technologies into the supply chain will optimize resource use.  Tomorrow, we can expect to see spare parts fabricated on demand using 3D printing and factories that take their cues from real-time analysis of “big data” from customer operations.  While still in their infancies, these technologies are already being deployed today.
U.S. competitiveness depends on our ability to manufacture as part of a global supply chain.  Not only does manufacturing create more value across the economy than any other sector, it contributes disproportionately to U.S. innovation.   The knowledge gained through deploying new manufacturing techniques results in new products and business models.  And the effects of knowledge acquisition are bolstered by the co-location of manufacturing and design.  Such activities spur the development of new industries and American jobs.

Those jobs depend on our ability to protect the know-how we’ve developed.  Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) allow us to manage our investment in innovation and commercialize new technology solutions.  A university will secure patents on a new process that can reduce waste, license it to manufacturing firms, and reinvest the proceeds into further research.  A start up may use trade secrets to protect a rapidly growing technology portfolio, while it tests out market requirements and seeks out investors.  Copyrights and trademarks are useful as well to protect software code that makes a plant more efficient or build a brand that becomes synonymous with high quality products.  Thus, at the heart of a U.S. advanced manufacturing strategy stands a commitment to innovate and protect the fruits of that innovation using IPR.

Yet these rights will propel US manufacturing only to the extent they exist and can be enforced.  With ninety-five percent of all consumers living outside the U.S., our manufacturing sector must fuel technology exports to support U.S. economic growth.  The inability of obtain or enforce IPR, will impair our ability to access markets and compete globally.   And while patent regimes exist in many countries, the value of IP assets vary widely.  Governments that call for IP “flexibilities” or establish discriminatory procurement policies that ignore or weaken U.S. IPR, threaten our investments in technology, manufacturing and jobs.  And in many countries, trade secret protection is effectively non-existent.  At every opportunity our government must impress upon trading partners the need to respect existing global rules and to prevent the erosion of IP rights that support U.S. technological competitiveness.

The prominence of the U.S., our ability to create jobs, and our standing as the world’s leading manufacturing economy is at stake.  The advantages of advanced manufacturing depend on rapidly developing technology and ensuring its uptake throughout the supply chain.  And sometimes, it requires reinventing that supply chain.  IPRs are the backbone that supports these technology investments, the unparalleled products of American ingenuity that enable us to be more efficient than the rest while maintaining high standards of quality.  Without robust global IPR rules, the value of our investments and the growth prospects of our economy are drastically diminished.

Thaddeus Burns is Senior Counsel, Intellectual Property and Technology Policy in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America for GE.