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Hot Property by Pat Choate

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

This book describes in detail the conundrums posed by high technology for traditional notions of intellectual property, and devotes chapters on how various countries, especially Japan and China, have gotten away with outrageous copyright and patent violations, oftentimes with the knowing assistance of the very U.S. politicians whose job should be to protect American innovation in an increasingly globalized economy.  It also focuses on the magnitude of the underground, or "gray," economy represented by knocked-off designer clothes and pirated CDs and DVDs.  And it places all this in context, taking a look at what the framers of our Constitution intended when they provided patent legislation in the first place.

Intellectual property rights are the bases through which advanced industrial societies enshrine and protect the constant stream of innovation required to maintain or improve the high standards of living that they advertise as social benefits flowing from modern democracies.  Political philosopher Michael Novak has put it thus: "What is distinctive about the capitalist economy is the original discovery that the primary cause of economic development is the mind.  The cause of wealth is invention, detection, enterprise."  Choate, who once ran as Vice Presidential candidate on the ticket with H. Ross Perot, looks at the history of copyrights, patents, and trademarks in America, and follows their evolution as the country expanded, matured, and gained power.

He decries the blatant thievery of the underground econony, and suggests that infringements on patent, copyright, and trademark rights cost U.S. manufacturers $200-250 billion annually.  But he also demonstrates how the young American nation wilfully infringed on the intellectual property rights of Great Britain, its mother country, and shows how this was an economic boon to a fragile post-Revolution economy.  Although Choate does not explicitly make this parallel, history would seem to support the notion that the overthrow of one-sided existing order is a requisite for a new country to advance into the top economic tier of nation-states.

By far, the largest infringer today of these intellectual property rights is the emerging giant, China.  Whether it be software, music, DVDs, or knocked-off furniture and accessories, this most populous country with a seemingly inexhaustible labor pool leads the way.  Yet many American leaders have turned a blind eye in China's direction, so convinced are they that the unrestrained market forces being unleashed are politically responsible for the undermining of the last gigantic bastion of communism.   Choate shows how political decisions by putative pro-business leaders like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush have hurt American firms and their stockholders, but are taken anyway in the name of political stability.

The book traces the often rocky economic road travelled by inventors like Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Eli Whitney, whose genius ushered in the Industrial Age, but whose naivete about the business aspects of innovation sometimes led to personal ruin.  And it also looks at more recent phenomena, like the extensions of copyright protections beyond the original terms, providing bonanzas for companies like Disney and Nike.  All in all, Hot Property  is a valuable and unique perspective on the underpinnings of modernity, and a startlingly good read.

Fun fact from this book: Which is the only U.S. President that actually holds a patent?  If you automatically guessed Thomas Jefferson, you'd be off by about fifty years.  It was Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, who patented a device for lifting boats over river shoals, receiving Patent #6469.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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