Report about WIPO conference

By EDRi · October 6, 2004

How does the work of WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organisation – affect the daily lives of the world’s six billion plus consumers? Is WIPO’s mission and work inherently exclusive, benefiting only the richer countries and consumers and harming the poor? Does WIPO need a new mission to embrace new information technologies and to benefit poor countries and consumers? These were some of the questions asked at an international workshop organised by the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) in Geneva on 13 and 14 September 2004. The workshop consisted of nine panels, each with five or six speakers, each dealing with a separate aspect. The speakers came from a wide range of backgrounds, there were many lawyers and academic researchers, with others drawn from areas of medicine, arts and civil society, including consumer organisations. There were also government officials from the US and EU countries, while developing country delegates to WIPO were invited as guests (none wished to be panellists). Very creditably, WIPO itself recognised the validity of the issues discussed and top WIPO officials took part in the workshops and sat on several panels.

The tone was set by an introduction by Jim Murray, Chairman of TACD and Director of BEUC (European Consumers Organisation), who quoted Thomas Drummond, 19th Scottish inventor and political administrator: ‘Property has duties as well as rights’. Drummond was talking about absentee landlords in Ireland but his words could be equally well employed to describe the relationship between rich corporations and countries, with their control over innovations in science and technology, and developing countries, who not only have to pay high prices to gain benefits but are often denied benefits at all.

The first and last panels looked specifically at WIPO’s mission and whether it should be changed. WIPO itself describes its mission as “promoting the use and protection of works of the human spirit”. While no panellist disagreed with such a mission, many pointed out that WIPO’s activities seemed to stifle innovation and creativity rather than promote it, through its emphasis on the rights of owners, especially corporations, rather than authors or users. Others felt that the mission was too vague and that there needed to be greater emphasis on the role of invention and innovation in supporting economic growth and development. Several speakers made the point that the term ‘intellectual property’ was itself suspect as it lumped together disparate notions of patents, copyrights, trademarks and other protective devices. Two panels looked at the broad area of WIPO and the information society.

There was general agreement among many panellists that digital technology, especially the spread of personal computers and the internet, had produced a different type of environment in which patents and restrictions were not always good or useful for society as a whole. Several speakers from the free/open software movement emphasised that computer software should not be subject to patent rules as this stifled the individual innovation which was so essential to driving the digital revolution forward. However, panellists also pointed out that there were still more areas where traditional patents were absolutely necessary to protect author and invention rights.

So what was the outcome? Does WIPO need a new mission? Most delegates at the meeting seemed to think it did. Most wanted to see more openness and flexibility, and more of a development agenda. They wanted to see less protection for corporations and more benefits for creators and consumers, especially when it came to providing essential goods and medicines for the poorest consumers.

Full conference report at the EDRI website

(Contribution by Ben Wallis, Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue)