President Obama recently spoke of protecting American goods, (AP, 2012) including from copyright theft overseas. The US has reason to be concerned. While Asia is often described as the factory of the world, north American companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Intel come up with many of the worlds most saleable ideas. North Americans, and Westerners in general, identify with their self-speech. Their bodies, and the material world in general, come in a poor second.
Making things is not something that Western culture has ever aspired to do. Making, or coining, ideas is however, something that Westerners strive to do well and are indeed very good at. Software, laws, logical architectures, theories, sales systems such as that of iTunes and MacDonald's are all made in the USA.
One of the problem with ideas is that they are easily copied. Not only that but other nations may have different attitudes to the copying "ideas". North Americans, identified as they are with their words, believe that words are free, unconstrained and unique. The symbolic field, the playground of the Western soul, is believed to be infinite, so each symbolic coinage is thought to be an act of creation.
More prosaic attitudes towards symbols see their world as a finite space with only so many permutations and combinations.
An examples of a finite symbolic space is that of domain names. The act of "inventing" a domain name and registering it is not necessarily creative. One might simply attempt to register all three letter domains and then sell them to the highest bidder. Westerners too are aware that coinages in the field of domain names are not so creative as to warrant full copyright protection and allow business with prior use of a letter sequence (e.g. the BBC) to recapture that domain name from any would be "domain name inventor." But what of other symbolic inventions? Examples of controversial patents include "1-Click Ordering" patented by Amazon. Is the ability to order a product using one click an invention, or is the attempt to patent merely a claim made upon an obvious permutation of a symbolic space, like an attempt to patent a domain name or word.
Attitudes towards patents of "intellectual property" or "symbolic inventions" will depend upon appraisal of the endeavour required to either "invent" or merely be the first to claim that set of symbols. Temporal priority is different to creativity and the extent to which each is involved is open to disagreement. To one person a patent may be an attempt to protect creative endeavour from subsequent theft, to another the same patent may appear to be a form of symbolic colonialism, akin to claiming "terra nullis" merely by setting foot upon it. Cultures may agree that simple priority -- being first -- is not enough unless it one is also creative at the same time but whether a particular creative act is seen as creative or merely going through the permutations in a finite field shows considerable cultural variability.
The Western view is partially clouded. Westerners see their "ideas," as being more ephemeral, and less merely the permutation of a finite set of symbols, than they really are and this logocentric bias is going to lead to conflict. I think that some nations, particularly the Chinese and Japanese, may also have a bias to see symbols are more limiting and finite than they really are but this only from experience. Either way, I am scared we are going to see copyright wars.
Associated Press. (2012) "APNewsBreak: Obama to Protect US Goods Globally." Downloaded from http://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory/ap-exclusive-obama-protect-us-goods-globally-15437740