Pfizer preferred GATT as a forum to make intellectual property rules because the developed nations, and particularly the US, held so much sway there:
Unlike in WIPO, we thought we could achieve real leverage through GATT. Many of the countries lacking intellectual property protection at least had important trading relations with the United States and the rest of the developed world. Moreover, through GATT we could forge intellectual property standards that were supported by dispute resolution and enforcement mechanisms, both of which were lacking in WIPO.
Edmond Pratt, CEO of Pfizer, put himself forward for the influential Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations (ACTPN) and by 1981 had been appointed as its chair by Ronald Reagan. He held this position for six years, until after the Uruguay Round had started and James Robinson from American Express replaced him as chair.
Under Pratt’s leadership the Advisory Committee formed a task force on intellectual property with John Opel, chair of IBM—also a leading member of the Advisory Committee—at its head. In this way, the committee became a key source of advice to the US Trade Representative on the importance of including intellectual property rights in the forthcoming Uruguay Round of GATT. Also, on Advisory Committee advice, the position of Assistant USTR for International Investment and Intellectual Property was created in 1981.
The task that Pfizer set itself was to link intellectual property with free trade. Not so easy, given that intellectual property rights had traditionally been associated with monopoly privileges that prevented competition and inhibited free trade. In fact, patents are so readily granted in the US these days that companies are patenting obvious ideas, such as the use of a shopping cart symbol on internet sites, merely to obstruct competition.
Moreover, GATT had been about trade barriers and it was not clear how intellectual property rights fitted in with this, particularly if a nation applied its patent laws without discriminating against foreign firms. The term ‘Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property rights’ (TRIPS) was therefore employed to ensure that opponents could not argue that GATT was not the appropriate forum for intellectual property rights discussions.
Pfizer conducted an international and domestic campaign to associate intellectual property protection with trade issues. Pratt made a series of speeches to business audiences linking intellectual property with trade and investment and other Pfizer executives made the same case to national and international trade associations. The Chemical Manufacturers Association and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America were amongst those that joined the campaign. Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite outline this campaign in their book Information Feudalism:
Like the beat of a tom-tom, the message about intellectual property went out along the business networks to chambers of commerce, business councils, business committees, trade association and business bodies. Progressively, Pfizer executives who occupied key positions in strategic business organizations were able to enrol their support for a trade-based approach to intellectual property. With every such enrolment, the business power behind the case for such an approach became harder and harder for governments to resist.
The campaign popularized the term ‘piracy’ to denigrate countries that had weak intellectual property laws and particularly to smear Asian countries, whose booming economies were making inroads into US markets.
Japanese manufacturing triumphs began to be seen as a portent of US deindustrialisation. Public myths began to be constructed in the US about this success. American ideas, American know-how were being stolen by the Japanese, it was widely believed.
Although pharmaceutical companies readily appropriated the labour of indigenous peoples, the story disseminated by Pfizer was one of innovative companies in the US risking large sums of money and effort on research into new drugs and then having their rightful rewards unfairly stolen from them when they finally discovered a successful drug, by countries who ignored the rules.
The story told by developing nations was a different one. One that claimed that a weaker intellectual property rights regime is necessary to aid development. They argued that not having tough rules enabled local companies to manufacture pharmaceutical drugs at a price that their citizens could afford and similarly local manufacture of herbicides and fertilizers enabled farmers to grow much needed food. India was able to develop its own pharmaceutical industry, under its own patent regime, so that it was self-sufficient and the price of drugs were much more affordable to its poverty stricken population.