OTTAWA — The federal government is facing calls, including warnings from BlackBerry’s co-founder, to be particularly vigilant when the upcoming NAFTA talks shift to intellectual property.
Intellectual property, or IP, is about owning, protecting and making money from an idea in any sector via tools like patents or copyrights, viewed by many as a crucial component of the expanding, and increasingly important, knowledge-based economy.
And it’s going to have a role in NAFTA talks, so with the start of the trade pact’s renegotiation only a few weeks away, experts like Jim Balsillie are urging the feds to arm themselves with economic models detailing the importance of IP to Canada’s future prosperity.
Balsillie, who’s provided pre-NAFTA advice to Ottawa, said in an interview that the models could serve as key bargaining chips, especially if they show any IP provisions sought by the U.S. could result in big costs for Canadian economy.
“Trade agreements are supposed to be mutually beneficial,” said Balsillie, who is chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators lobby group.
“Do the math and if it’s not a mutually beneficial agreement don’t sign it. There has to be something for Canada’s economy — it cannot be winner take all.”
Balsillie’s comments could revive a debate that surfaced a couple of years ago, following talks around the Trans-Pacific Partnership, over how Canada should negotiate IP provisions in modern trade agreements.
When it comes to what’s best for Canada, there’s disagreement whether the country’s interests should align with those in the U.S.
Earlier this week, the United States released its NAFTA objectives, as is required under American law. The months-long talks are scheduled to begin Aug. 16.
Among the priorities, the U.S. document said NAFTA talks must break down barriers such as the “burdensome restrictions of intellectual property.” It listed about 10 goals under the IP section.
The U.S. has also signalled its negotiators would likely use agreements from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a starting point in some areas for NAFTA’s renegotiation.
Balsillie fears the IP provisions in NAFTA 2.0 could end up looking a lot like those Canada agreed to during TPP negotiations. The measures in that deal sought the same IP laws for all 12 countries.
The Trump administration essentially killed the original TPP by pulling out of it earlier this year, but the remaining 11 countries, including Canada, have resumed talks.
Balsillie warned TPP’s IP rules would favour the more-dominant U.S. and its firms, which have already amassed a far bigger portfolio of patents, copyrights and trademarks.
Canada’s innovative entrepreneurs would be locked out under the rule changes, he argued.
“We dodged a bullet of a lifetime,” Balsillie said, referring to the IP elements in TPP.
Other experts strongly disagree that Canada’s priorities on IP should differ in any significant way from those of the U.S.
Barry Sookman, a senior partner with McCarthy Tetrault, said Canada, like the U.S., should be seeking a general, robust framework for IP. There should also be consistency with laws in the U.S., where many Canadians do business, he added.
Unlike other areas, Sookman expects there’s very little for Canada and the U.S. to disagree on when it comes to IP.
He added that the IP provisions in TPP would’ve only created “incremental” changes because Canadian laws are already largely consistent with them.
“Balderdash,” Sookman said when asked whether TPP’s IP rules would have disadvantaged Canadian innovators.
“There was quite a lot of confusion and, frankly, inaccurate information about what the TPP would have required for Canada.”
But other experts like Dan Ciuriak say Canadian negotiators should be prepared to show the Americans just how much more they would stand to benefit if Canada agrees to a TPP-style deal.
He also believes Canada should model the costs and benefits.
“If that has got a significant dollar value, then that should be weighed against what we are also being asked to give up in terms of softwood lumber and in terms of dairy and other traditional areas,” said Ciuriak, a consultant and former deputy chief economist for what is now known as Global Affairs Canada.
“We haven’t been thinking in terms of how the knowledge-based economy actually works.”