- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2009
OP-ED:

This week’s Washington Auto Show (Wednesday-Sunday) will give automakers an important opportunity to showcase their green credentials to policymakers in our nation’s capital. This audience, after all, may hold the keys to the Big Three’s future as new government assistance and tougher environmental regulations are considered.

While President Obama and Congress weigh options to help put automakers on the road to success, one policy area that also deserves their attention is protecting intellectual property. Automakers and parts manufacturers need support against criminal counterfeiting networks that endanger consumers and cost the domestic auto industry $3 billion and thousands of jobs annually. The fake parts they produce create major safety issues and undermine the trust and reputations that legitimate companies have strived to earn.

Government action is also needed to head off a newer threat to automotive innovation - the growing number of foreign governments and NGOs determined to weaken intellectual property rights in areas like energy efficiency and environmental technology, citing the current patent system as a “barrier to technology transfer.”

With its focus on developing more appealing and cleaner cars, Detroit relies on this very intellectual property system that incentivizes new investments in research and development. Even as the United States has evolved from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, the auto industry still relies on both. The high-tech ideas, designs and inventions generated by automotive engineers support millions of jobs throughout the auto manufacturing chain, from suppliers to showrooms.

As a long-term recovery plan is developed, a common demand has been for these companies to produce more energy-efficient vehicles. While automakers admit there is more to be done, they have made important investments in these areas over the years.

Intellectual property expert James E. Malackowski points out, “General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are collectively one of the world’s primary sources for the research and development of green and fuel-efficient technologies.” In fact, GM has “newer green technology and patents than the other 14 automakers combined. Ford and GM together hold approximately a third of all green technology patents and the related value. Ford owns 30 percent of all patents with a similar related value measure in emission control innovation.”

The future of these companies depends on them leading a new era of green innovation in the auto industry. They are in a race against time as ambitious competitors from China and India also develop new cars with hybrid technologies, high-performance batteries and other green innovations while improving safety, reliability and appeal.

In return, the creative engineers and researchers working on these advances depend on strong intellectual property rights that incentivize the risk-taking, time and funding needed in these job-creating ventures. America’s inventors need this reassurance that their ideas and creative ownership rights will be protected by law in the United States and abroad.

Fortunately, there are promising signs the auto industry has friends in Washington on these issues. During the last Congress, the “PRO-IP Act” was passed with broad bipartisan support to improve intellectual property enforcement penalties, resources and coordination. And President Obama has already promised to invest “$15 billion a year in new green technologies that can create up to 5 million jobs.”

The administration and Congress can protect automotive jobs and consumer safety against criminal counterfeiting by fully funding and implementing the PRO-IP Act, improving border enforcement, ensuring our trading partners live up to their international obligations, and continuing negotiations for a strong international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. Together, these measures can help protect consumers by keeping counterfeit auto parts out of their cars, while combating an illicit trade that destroys legitimate jobs.

Our leaders must also address the threat to automotive innovation presented by international efforts to weaken green technology patent rights. President Obama and Congress should support the adoption of intellectual property-protected, technology-based solutions to climate change and energy security in final negotiations at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2009. In doing so, they can rely on the support of the business community, labor, environmental groups and other stakeholders committed to developing and protecting technologies that reduce carbon emissions and create intellectual property-intensive green jobs.

Understandably, the immediate concern for the automotive industry is to secure their financial viability. But to ensure lasting success and competitiveness, they, like all of America’s innovative industries and the 18 million Americans they employ, will also require effective government protection and enforcement of their protected ideas.

This week’s auto show offers automakers a prime opportunity to showcase their commitment to a green industry and economy. It also provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate why President Obama and Congress must act to protect intellectual property and America’s innovation economy.

Mark T. Esper is executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Global Intellectual Property Center.