Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 4 October 2004

Call for “paradigm shift” in WIPO

When the history of intellectual creativity and technological innovation is written, it may cite the events of last week as significant.

For a shift of paradigm took place in the way the public and the governments of developing countries view the role of intellectual property rights (IPRs).

A Declaration on intellectual property was launched in Geneva by 500 people and groups last Wednesday, whilst a debate also took place at the world’s premier intellectual property organization on whether to set up a “development agenda”.

The Declaration called  for a change in direction and priorities in the way IPRs are treated. Among the signatories were Sir John Sulston (2002 Nobel prize winner for Physiology), Burton Richter (Nobel Laureate for Phsics, 1976), Medicin Sans Frontier (Nobel Peace Prize winner), several other scientists, law and economics professors and public citizen groups.

With too many monopolistic privileges of owners of patents, copyright and other IPRs, there is a global crisis in the governance of knowledge, technology and culture, says the Declaration on the Future of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

The crisis caused by excessive granting of IPRs is manifested in many ways:  Millions die without access to medicines; unequal access to education, knowledge and technology;  anti-competitive practices impose enormous costs to consumers and retard innovation; authors, artists and inventors face barriers to follow-on innovation; IPRs in digital environments threaten the exceptions in copyright laws for disabled persons, libraries, educators and consumers.

The Declaration says there are astoundingly promising innovations in information, medical and other essential technologies, as well as in social movements and business models.

These include campaigns for access to medicines, to scientific journals and databases, and hundreds of innovative collaborative efforts including the Internet, Wikipedia, GNU Linux and other free and open software projects and distance education tools. 

Alternative compensation systems, other than IPRs, have been proposed to expand access and interest in cultural works, while providing artists and consumers with fair systems of compensation.

The Declaration pinpoints WIPO as part of the problem, for having created and expanded monopoly rights through excessive IPRs.   It calls for a change in WIPO’s approach and programmes, by striking a proper balance between IPR rights holders on one hand, and the public and competition on the other hand.

It also called for WIPO to broaden its Mission from solely promoting IPRs to also include promoting creative intellectual activity and facilitating technology transfer to developing countries in order to accelerate development.  These larger goals are in an agreement that WIPO signed when it became part of the United Nations system in 1974.

Detailing other changes in WIPO, the Declaration asked the governments and Secretariat in WIPO to choose a future, with a change of direction, new priorities and better outcomes for humanity.  “We cannot wait for another generation.”  

In parallel to the Declaration launching, the government delegations in WIPO’s General Assembly debated a landmark proposal by a group of developing countries, calling for WIPO to embark on a “development agenda.”

The proposal was signed by 12 countries led by Brazil and Argentina, and supported from the floor by the Asian and African Groups.   Thus, almost all the developing countries put their weight behind this initiative that calls for a reform in WIPO’s approach to its work.

The proposal said that the role of intellectual property has been debated for years.  IPRs are intended as an instrument to promote technological innovation and is not an end in itself.   It can produce benefits as well as costs and action is needed to ensure the costs do not outweigh the benefits.

The proposal calls for integrating the “development dimension” into WIPO’s activities, including in negotiations taking place on new treaties, and for WIPO to set up a programme for technology transfer.

There was palpable excitement at the WIPO General Assembly hall when Brazil, Argentina and other co-sponsors (including Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Bolivia, Iran, Venezuela) introduced their proposal last Thursday and Friday.

Among the actions they demanded were for WIPO to set up a working group to come up with recommendations to integrate the development dimension in WIPO activities and to organize an international conference on intellectual property and development.  

The proposal was supported from the floor by most developing countries, including Egypt (on behalf of the Africa Group) and Sri Lanka (on behalf of the Asia Group).  Other countries that spoke in support of the proposal were India, Pakistan, the Philippines, China, Oman, Senegal, Ethiopia, Benin, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica.

While the proposals had the support of developing countries, they were implicitly opposed by many developed countries which suggested instead that an assessment be carried out on the effects of WIPO’s activities on development. 

Introducing the main proposal Thursday, the Brazilian delegate said intellectual property is not an end in itself and cannot be seen as such by WIPO.  If development is the overriding principle, then WIPO should act in support of that goal.

The time had come for WIPO to fully integrate the development dimension in all its work, said Brazil.  As part of the agenda, WIPO should also act to on issues such as technology transfer and anti-competitive practices. 

Egypt, on behalf of the Africa Group, said development was Africa’s highest priority and it was only natural for Africa to welcome the proposal to put development at the forefront of WIPO’s activities.  It was only natural for WIPO to build on its existing work for developing countries by integrating development in all its activities so as to ensure that development is addressed in a holistic way.

South Africa, speaking in support, said that the development must be mainstreamed in WIPO.  No new WIPO instruments should proceed without being informed by the development dimension.

Sri Lanka, on behalf of the Asia Group, said that the proposal was timely, and a working group on the development agenda was a good idea.  

India said that the damage caused by the World Trade Organisation’s intellectual property (TRIPS) agreement has raised public consciousness worldwide as to the problems associated with intellectual property.

As developing countries moved to comply with the TRIPS agreement, they faced major challenges and realized that they need the flexibility and space to choose appropriate policies.  However, the process of harmonisation of patent laws have the danger of promoting the interests of rent seekers.

Remarking that TRIPS is a tribute to the logic of power, not economics or fairness, India stated that a WIPO development agenda would help steer the organization away from the same course.  No longer would developing countries agree that intellectual property will nurture innovation everywhere.  At present, it exists to serve patent holders, who are mainly in the North, at the expense of public interest.

Each country needs flexibility in IP policy, so that it can ensure the costs outweigh the benefits.   India said it fully supported  the objective of the Brazil-Argentina proposal which should be translated into action.

Major developed countries were not as supportive of action on a development agenda in WIPO.  They indicated that WIPO had been doing enough for developing countries.  Instead of establishing a working group on a development agenda, they proposed that an assessment be made of WIPO’s work as it relates to development.