WIPO conference report by Ben Wallis (TACD)

By EDRi · October 6, 2004

How does the work of WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organization – 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 13-14 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.

Some of the same points were made at the panels that looked at medical technologies and the arts. Sir John Sulston, a Nobel Prize Winner for Medicine or Physiology in 2002, gave a wonderfully straightforward and non-technical account of human genome project and why it had to be in the public domain. The many researchers working on the project now posted all research material on the web as soon as it was ready, enabling – in fact positively inviting – other scientists to build on the discoveries. This both encouraged competition and cooperation among teams, while minimising duplication. The open access approach had seen off a competing project which aimed to privatise genetic material for commercial gain. Other speakers talked of the problems caused by highly restrictive patents and consequent high prices charged by international pharmaceutical companies for essential drugs, especially those for HIV/AIDS.

Speakers on the arts panel also emphasised the value of art that could be created through sharing and collaboration. Parallel to this, was the often poor service and even poorer returns to performing and other artists, who lost out in unequal contracts with large companies. This was an excellent opportunity to introduce the innovative ideas of Creative Commons, promoting a new type of artist-led copyright – aptly referred to as copyleft.

There were separate panels dealing with the specific and highly complex issues of the different components of `intellectual property’, such as patents and copyrights, and access to the traditional knowledge and folklore of indigenous peoples. WIPO was generally praised for its work in this area, where it had widely consulted with thousands of indigenous people in an attempt to study the issues and attitudes concerned. Even those speakers who were wary of how WIPO might develop this programme acknowledged the very difficult practical and conceptual problems involved in recognising and giving just recompense to indigenous communities for use of genetic, plant and animal resources and traditional knowledge.

WIPO’s technical assistance – or lack of it – to developing countries came under considerable criticism, not least from developing country delegates. Although WIPO stressed that it had changed its technical assistance programmes, many delegates felt that the technical assistance often fell short of their wants and needs. Rather than supporting their capacity for innovation by informing them of existing flexibilities in current systems and treaties, too often WIPO had been interested only in teaching them to be compliant with WIPO regulations and WTO rules. Everyone was able to agree that to be more effective WIPO should collaborate with other UN agencies who had greater expertise in development.

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.

But it was significant that WIPO recognised the need to engage with these views and this was reflected in the enthusiastic spirit in which they worked with TACD at the conference. Maybe WIPO itself will take Drummond’s words to heart: `Property has duties as well as rights’.

(Contribution for EDRI-gram nr 2.19, by Ben Wallis, Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue)