Conference Signals Growing WIPO Engagement on Public Policy Issues

15 July 2009

A high-profile conference hosted by the World Intellectual Property Organization held in Geneva this week reflected WIPO's growing willingness to engage on public policy issues such as climate change, public health, biodiversity and food security.

Speakers included a number of heads of UN agencies and multilateral organisations - such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) - in addition to government officials, representatives of the private sector and civil society.

The proposal to hold such a conference originated from a recommendation of the WIPO patent body, the Standing Committee on Patents (SCP).

At the closing of the two-day conference, the Chairman of the SCP, Maximiliano Santa Cruz, from Chile, hailed a successful conference which had been "useful to open our minds to new solutions and an invitation to think outside the box." He recalled that "intellectual property is not an end in itself, but an instrument to promote innovation, creativity and the dissemination of knowledge." He added that "while the IP may have an adverse effect on some areas of development, it can also be an important part of any solution."

The Director General of WIPO, Francis Gurry, underlined that the conference deepened dialogue on the issues discussed. The meeting "reflected the efforts of the intellectual property community to reach out to the social and economic context that intellectual property is designed to address."

Climate change took a centre stage at the conference in view of the looming international negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen in December, when the parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will try to ink a new deal to mitigate global warming.

The role of intellectual property in technology transfer has emerged as a controversial subject in the negotiations. At the WIPO conference, the gap in perspectives on this issue was apparent.

David Lammy, the United Kingdom's Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, underlined that the IP system is critical in delivering a global solution that provides for the widespread diffusion and transfer of climate change technologies. He also indicated that his country favoured pooling patents to help companies from developed and developing countries build on the benefits of each others' technologies.

Haroldo Machado Filho, a Brazilian science and technology official, pleaded for the establishment of a public multilateral fund for purchasing licenses with a view to facilitating the transfer of climate change technologies. Filho added that there is a need to consider criteria for compulsory licensing based on situations of national emergencies or urgency related to climate change.

Carl Holton, Chief IP counsel of General Electric, underlined that intellectual property and market incentives play an essential role in facilitating technology transfer. "Companies do not transact business unless they have confidence they can protect their investments," he added. Holton emphasised that WIPO should be the world authority on clean technology and IP.

Gurry also stressed that the IP system offers a proven means of encouraging investment in clean technologies, while also pointing to the fact that many climate change technologies are not protected by intellectual property rights, or IPRs, and that technology transfer goes much beyond intellectual property.

The Bolivian ambassador in Geneva recalled, during the discussion, her country's position at the UNFCCC that environmentally sound technologies should be mandatorily excluded form patenting in developing countries.

In addition to climate change, health was an important subject debated at the conference.

The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Margaret Chan, mentioned that "market forces and the incentives, such as patent protection ...cannot by themselves adequately address the health needs of developing countries. Incentives need to be found to overcome the problems arising from this market failure." She called for "strong collaborative action" among international organisations to address questions relating to public health, trade and intellectual property.

Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the WTO, applauded the timely initiative taken by WIPO. "This initiative reaffirms that the international IP system cannot operate in isolation from broader public policy questions such as how to meet basic human needs for health, food and a clean environment," he added. He also underlined that "no one international agency has a monopoly on these diverse areas of expertise, and the challenge of ensuring practical access to medicines requires a comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort."

Speaking on the role of IP in sustainable agriculture, Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said that while agricultural research had delivered great results in terms of increasing yields and reducing poverty and hunger, there is an urgent need for "an open debate on the elements, tools and limits of intellectual property protection in the agricultural sector, and the need to reconcile the commercial interests of the IPR holders with public concerns."

Discussions at the conference reflected a wide variety of views on intellectual property and public policy challenges held by a diversity of stakeholders.

The level of maturity of the discussion differs from one area to the other, Santa Cruz emphasised in his closing remarks. He pointed to the greater maturity of discussions in the area of intellectual property and public health, where problems had been identified and solutions advanced, compared to climate change, where discussions were just starting and are still characterised by a wide divergence of views.

Sisule Musungu, President of IQsensato, noted in a comment on the conference, that while "WIPO can play a useful coordinating role in dealing with or addressing the relationship between IP and a range of public policy issues. It would be dangerous, however, if it was left alone to determine the rules that govern the relationship between those public policy issues and IP." He added that the conference would be an "interesting indicator as to whether WIPO will coordinate or control the agenda going forward."

For many observers, the conference was a long overdue development as WIPO had shied away in past years from openly addressing public policy concerns and had pursued a narrow intellectual property agenda. In addition, member states had demanded that WIPO collaborate more closely with other UN agencies, particularly in the context of the WIPO Development Agenda recommendations.

Looking beyond the conference, there is a growing realisation that ensuring that intellectual property polices and rules are made supportive of public policy objectives is a longer term challenge that needs sustained action.

"WIPO Conference on IP and Public Policies Wraps Up," IP WATCH, 15 July 2009; "WIPO Looks At Mandate On IP And Climate Change, Access For Reading Impaired," IP Watch, 14 July 2009.

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