Acton Commentary

America's Inventive Mind


Have you ever wondered why America is an economic superpower? Why is it that this country, which is still in its infancy compared to the time-tested territories of Africa and Asia, is so much wealthier and more developed than most other nations around the world? What sets the United States apart from others?

You may think it’s the people that set America apart from all others. But our melting pot is such a colorful amalgamation of humanity that to say the “people” define America, while a nice sentiment, doesn’t cut to the heart of our uniqueness. As divinely created beings, Americans are not essentially different from the people who live in Ethiopia, Brazil, or Bangladesh. The talents God blessedly bestows on Americans are no different than those bestowed upon folks born and bred in Nairobi.

If it is not the people, then perhaps it is the vast pool of resources that sets America apart. The United States does, indeed, have immense natural and man-made resources, allowing it to be a leading exporter of such things as agricultural goods, automobiles, and military material. But many other countries have resources, too. China has tremendous natural resources combined with a large labor force. Saudi Arabia has oil. Both countries possess valuable resources, yet neither country is an economic superpower. Resources alone cannot account for America’s economic might.

I believe that the strength of the American economy resides in something very simple: It is the value we ascribe to human creativity. And there is no more salient example of this than the freedom our country prescribes in owning and protecting property rights .

I’m not talking about real property (such as houses) or personal property (such as cars). I’m talking about intellectual property —otherwise known as the “property of the mind”—the fruits of our creative genius. Although real and personal property do set us apart from many other nations, our intangible assets are the real drivers of the American economy.

Article I of the Constitution grants us the right to protect our inventions and creative expressions. This is the birth-provision of patent and copyright rights. It is our forefathers’ declaration that the fruits of our inventiveness and ingenuity should be protected. It is the decree that our intellectual property should be, must be , diligently tended and safeguarded. It is this freedom to create, a freedom that is fertilized by our legal system, which really accounts for our economic success.

According to Jon W. Dudas, acting Director of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, intellectual property represents the single largest sector of the American economy. American intellectual property exports, in the form such items as music, books, movies, trademark and copyright licenses, add more value to our economy each year than our automobile, agricultural, and aircraft industry exports combined. For example, ninety-one percent of Coca-Cola’s market capitalization (which is over $112 billion) is comprised of intangible assets. The Coca-Cola trademark has been valued at $69.6 billion. Moreover, copyrighted information is the largest single export in the United States. In 2001, copyrights accounted for $89 billion of our foreign sales and exports.

Thus, intellectual property — and the value we ascribe to that property — are the main sources of American wealth. Such property includes our patents (think Microsoft); our trademarks (think NIKE); our copyrights (think Disney’s Mickey Mouse); and our trade secrets (think the Coke formula).

Unlike underdeveloped countries, the United States celebrates its citizens’ intellectual property by highly valuing it. Not only do we celebrate and value our intellectual property, we capitalize on it. We encourage, protect, and reward our inventors, our artists, our writers, and anyone else who creatively expresses ideas and information. We do so because our forefathers had the prescience to protect such property and our legislators had the gumption to create enforcement mechanisms to facilitate such protection, namely, the Patent Act, the Copyright Act, and the Trademark Act, to list a few.

So the next time you read a book, or listen to your favorite CD, or watch a movie, think about the American economy. Think about an economy that thrives on intangible assets, the fruits of its people’s labors, and then think about what you have done lately to add to that economy by capitalizing on your own unique, God-given creativity. For, ultimately, what is praiseworthy about the United States’ protection of intellectual property is not its ability to expedite wealth creation. Instead, it is its implicit recognition of the truths of the Genesis account—that the human person is the apex of Creation and shares in the dignity and creativity of the Maker.