WIPO's New Direction with WIPO's New DG

24 September 2008

The WIPO General Assembly began its thirty-fourth session this week.  One of the first orders of business on its agenda: electing a new Director General.  On Monday, Francis Gurry of Australia gave his acceptance speech.  (You can read his full speech here.)

Gurry's Goals
Mr. Gurry's acceptance speech contained all the expected rhetoric of unity and working together to improve the global state of IP.  It also contained thoughts on some specific areas needing attention.  Primarily, and encompassing all others, is the explosive growth of technology.  A backlog of patent applications in Patent Offices around the world is one direct effect of this growth.  Another is the increase of copyright infringement, made easier by developments in digital technology.  Mr. Gurry encourages building upon the existing Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) to address the first. The second issue, he says, requires a reexamination of WIPO's role as "the international organization responsible for intellectual property."

Beyond these classic IP issues of patent procedure and copyright infringement, the new Director General discussed issues of global concern where IP might be of assistance.  Mr. Gurry seems enthusiastic that IP holds possibilities for LDCs (Least Developed Countries) in terms of closing the knowledge gap and improving economies.  IP protection of traditional knowledge and "a global knowledge infrastructure" are two steps towards these goals.

Indeed, both of these are projects in process.  The Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) has been discussing international IP protection of these areas for eight years, and the newly established Committee on Development and Intellectual Property (CDIP) is working to implement a list of recommendations that includes expanding its PATENTSCOPE® database, creating agreements for access to other existing databases, and establishing "inter-regional IP Search Databases."

Mr. Gurry highlighted the relationship between advancements in technology and the fight against climate change, disease, and other such global concerns.  He urged WIPO to add its IP contribution to these challenges and proposed that a new Division in the Secretariat would focus on these concerns.

Where's WIPO
When BIRPI, the predecessor to WIPO, was originally formed, its purpose was to help facilitate international protection of patents, trademarks and industrial designs (under the Paris Convention), and literary and artistic works (under the Berne Convention).  The current focus appears to be a bit blurry.  As seen from the Director General's speech, WIPO's concerns now include:

  • "the stimulation and diffusion of innovation and creativity"
  • "the establishment of order in the market"
  • "dealing with the growth of demand and internationalization of the patent system"
  • "returning value to creators, performers and their business associates"
  • dealing with "the scourge" of "risks to health and safety and consumer protection" arising from counterfeit goods
  • "contribut(ing) to the reduction of the knowledge gap"
  • contributing to "greater participation on the part of developing and least developing countries in the benefits of innovation and the knowledge economy"
  • capacity building of LDCs
  • "making intellectual property work to the advantage of all countries"
  • "broadening intellectual property to make it more responsive to the needs of the developing world"
  • "address(ing) global challenges" such as "climate change, desertification, epidemics, access to health care, food security and the preservation of biodiversity"

Intellectual property encompasses so much and touches on so many areas of life.  In its attempt to handle issues in several areas, WIPO seems to be pulling itself in different directions.  Is it a development org? An environmental agency?  An enforcement body? An administrative support system?  Mr. Gurry did recognize this confusion to some extent in his acceptance speech.  Commenting on WIPO's role in copyright, he pondered two alternatives:

Should that role be confined to awareness-raising and the training of customs officials, the police and the judiciary?  Or should it encompass a more robust engagement and, if so, alone or in cooperation with other concerned international agencies?

In some ways, it is good that one organization is trying to address all these issues.  It means that each representative is (or should be) aware of what's going on and how these issues coincide.  This could lead to more well-rounded and effective agreements, if agreements are ever reached.  Some committees, like the IGC, appear stalled with sharp divisions between developed and developing countries.  However, the CDIP actually seems to be getting somewhere.  At its first meeting, the committee began sorting through the list of recommendations it is to implement and took action on six of the forty-five items.

In Sum
Mr. Gurry has a lot of ideas for guiding WIPO.  The organization has been under scrutiny lately, and the world is very interested to see in what kind of direction this new Director General will take "the international organization responsible for intellectual property."


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