WIPO Assemblies Get Underway, Focusing on Next Steps for Key Treaties

6 October 2016

The UN’s intellectual property agency opened its annual “Assemblies” this week, gearing up for a series of high-level meetings aimed at advancing the organisation’s normative work in areas such as a possible industrial design treaty.

The Fifty-Sixth Assemblies of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) began on Monday 3 October and will end on 11 October, with this year’s event being convened under the chairmanship of Latvian Ambassador Jānis Kārkliņš.

Looking ahead to the weeklong meetings, WIPO Director General Francis Gurry urged member states in his opening address to consider the complexity that arises for the intellectual property landscape, in light of “an economy in which value resides increasingly in intellectual assets, and in which technology and innovation are developing at accelerating speeds.”

Visually impaired treaty in force

This year’s meeting came just days after the entry into force of a major international treaty aimed at making it easier for the blind, visually impaired, and print disabled to access books in formats adapted to their needs.

The agreement was adopted three years ago in Marrakesh, Morocco, which is its namesake. Known formally as the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, the international agreement has now been ratified by the required “contracting parties” and entered into force on 30 September. (See Bridges Weekly, 4 July 2013)

The list of countries where the treaty is in force includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, North Korea, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Israel, Mali, Mexico, Mongolia, Paraguay, Peru, South Korea,  Singapore, United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay.

Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have also ratified the deal, submitting their instruments of ratification last month. The Marrakesh Treaty will enter into force for them in December.

Specifically, the accord aims to both facilitate the production of books in accessible formats, along with helping ease their exchange across country borders – particularly given that over 90 percent of published works are not available in formats designed for the blind or visually impaired. Approximately 285 million people in the world are either blind or otherwise print disabled, according to the World Blind Union.

The Marrakesh Treaty’s entry into force is a “major cause for celebration,” Gurry said on Monday. The WIPO chief particularly acknowledged certain countries and regions for playing a major role during the ratification process, with India as the first member to ratify. Latin America is also the region with the most countries among the current contracting parties, while Australia and Canada were the first developed countries to join.

The WIPO chief also referred to progress of a related initiative, known as the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC). This partnership is led by WIPO and also includes publishing and author groups, as well as those organisations who work with the visually impaired.

To date, the ABC has helped support the lending of books in accessible formats – such as Braille, audio, or large print – to 100,000 visually impaired people across 16 countries. The consortium also provides training in developing countries for supporting the production and distribution of such books, along with working to support commercial publishers in developing e-books for the visually impaired community.

Design law treaty: next steps?

One of the key items on the docket during this year’s Assemblies will be how to move forward on a design law treaty that has been under discussion for the past eight years.

The proposed treaty aims to harmonise industrial design registration formalities at the international level. It is being negotiated under WIPO’s Standing Committee on the Law of Trademarks, Industrial Designs and Geographical Indications (SCT).

Plans to convene a “diplomatic conference” – WIPO’s highest level of meeting – to finalise talks on the proposed treaty have been repeatedly postponed. Last year, the WIPO Assemblies agreed to aim for a diplomatic conference in early 2017, following discussions on the unresolved issues of “technical assistance” and a possible “disclosure of origin” requirement aimed at protecting traditional assets from misappropriation.

According to Gurry, the SCT nearly managed to reach a deal on those remaining topics. The WIPO chief urged members to clinch a deal during the coming days, in the hopes of bringing the long-running talks to a close.

“There was widespread agreement on a common approach, with only isolated resistance,” he told member states on Monday. “I very much hope that the member states will be able to bridge the remaining difference in this meeting and decide to convene the diplomatic conference in 2017.”

Spurring forward other normative work?

The WIPO chief suggested to member states on Monday that progress on the industrial design treaty could help provide some much-needed political momentum to the UN agency’s other rule-making efforts, most specifically its negotiations on a broadcasting treaty as well as its negotiations on an international instrument(s) involving traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, and genetic resources.

Neither of these are up for formal decisions at this year’s meetings. However, Gurry suggested that the discussions on both issues during the coming week may still prove invaluable for next year’s work, particularly given some upcoming deadlines.

The Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) is the WIPO group tasked with the negotiations of the broadcasting treaty, which is focused on protecting the rights of broadcasting organisations. Past efforts at deciding on whether to convene a diplomatic conference have failed to bear fruit.

These efforts are in response to the so-called WIPO Internet treaties, which were signed two decades ago. These accords apply to copyright and also to performers and producers of phonograms (sound recordings), and were what triggered broadcasters to call for updated protection from having their signals stolen.

“While some further progress has been made in the past year in the technical understanding of the issues and in defining a way forward, the time has come, after 20 years, for member states to decide in a definitive manner what they wish to do with this item,” said Gurry.

Meanwhile, the work on traditional knowledge, traditional culture expressions, and genetic resources has been conducted under the Intergovernmental Committee on Traditional Knowledge, Genetic Resources, and Folklore (IGC). That committee was established nearly two decades ago, in response to concerns from indigenous peoples and biodiversity-rich countries that these resources might be misappropriated and that their benefits might not be shared equitably.

The IGC process has faced several hurdles over the years. These include deciding what legal nature a final instrument(s) will take, along with how advanced the substantive discussions are. The fact that the committee’s mandate must be renewed biennially has also lead to intense debates at WIPO, including at last year’s Assemblies, particularly given that the IGC’s work had been on hiatus since 2014. (See Bridges Weekly, 8 October 2015)

The mandate for 2016-2017 involves a series of dedicated IGC meetings to the three overarching topics of traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, and genetic resources. Next year’s WIPO Assemblies will then assess the advances made in that process, in order to determine whether to convene a diplomatic conference.

To date, two meetings have been held this year on the topic of genetic resources, with a working draft document having since been forwarded to the 2017 Assemblies – albeit with many unresolved issues. A meeting on traditional knowledge was held last month.  (See Bridges Weekly, 29 February 2016 and 9 June 2016) A third IGC meeting will be held from 24-30 November.

“Steady progress has been made in the year to date by the IGC, but it is clear that a very concentrated effort at a political level will be required in the coming year in order to deliver positive results to the 2017 Assemblies,” said Gurry.

Patent systems: year in review

On Monday, Gurry also provided an overview of the various “global IP systems” – specifically WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), the Madrid System for marks, and the Hague System for designs – noting that all of these had seen progress over the past year.

He referred to the need to keep working on expanding the geographical coverage of these systems, while also noting that some regions and intellectual property systems that were traditionally not that active have lately seen increased activity.

For example, Asia accounted for nearly 44 percent of international patent applications in 2015, followed by North America and Europe with 28 and 27 percent, respectively. He also emphasised that the accession of several major economies has made the Hague System for designs much more dynamic, with applications in 2015 having grown by almost 41 percent.

External offices

Another sensitive issue being treated in this year’s meeting is the long-running discussion on the potential opening of three new external WIPO offices. Last year, the Assemblies agreed that priority would be given to Africa in allocating the offices.

According to a report from the WIPO secretariat, 18 member states have submitted requests to host. This group includes Algeria, Azerbaijan, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, India, Iran, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Panama, Romania, South Korea, Tunisia, and  Turkey.

Going into the meeting, Algeria and Nigeria are reportedly those that have received the African Group’s backing, while the Group of Latin American and Caribbean countries has supported Colombia, according to IP-Watch.

Two-layer complexity

Looking forward, “complexity” was the word Gurry chose to bundle up the challenges ahead for the UN agency. This includes “subject-matter complexity” in “a world of great asymmetries in knowledge capacity,” with the Director General citing in this context the wide range of existing economic models, from pre- to post-industrial, and the different roles that intellectual property rights play within them.

There is also “institutional complexity,” which the WIPO chief said was the result of the former, and has taken shape in a diverse set of intellectual property frameworks at the national, bilateral, plurilateral, regional, and multilateral levels, all of which are interconnected.

Finally, Gurry invited members to reflect on “the role of the multilateral in this new landscape of multi-speed and multi-layered complexity.”

A recap of the WIPO Assemblies’ outcomes will be provided in the next edition of Bridges.

ICTSD reporting; “External Offices, WIPO Normative Work At Heart of General Assemblies,” IP WATCH, 3 October 2016.   

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