WIPO Assemblies Kick Off With Full Agenda of Normative Issues

8 October 2015

The Assemblies of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) kicked off last Monday, with the UN agency set to consider a whole host of unresolved issues, such as financing issues relating to the revised Lisbon Agreement on appellations of origin and the fate of a committee dealing with traditional knowledge, genetic resources, and folklore.

The annual Assemblies set the priorities for the UN agency for the coming year, including the approval of the next budget, specifically for the years 2016-2017. Normative issues have long proven particularly difficult topics to navigate at these meetings, with this year’s Assemblies expected to take up various issues that had struggled to reach consensus at this time last year.

“The immediate challenge before the member states is the agenda of these Assemblies, where there are some real differences over a number of items,” said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry in opening the meeting, which is set to run through 14 October.

“To the extent that member States are able to agree on these issues, which will require a real effort and some compromise in initial positions, the Organization will be in a fitter and better condition to engage on the larger question of identifying a future agenda that embraces some of the realities that underlie the difficulties that the Organization confronts in moving forward on the normative agenda,” he continued.

Lisbon funding

Coming into this year’s meetings, a standoff had emerged among some WIPO members over whether the organisation’s budget should be used to finance the Lisbon Agreement and the new Geneva Act, approved last May. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 May 2015)

The latter extends the coverage of Lisbon from appellations of origin (AO) to geographical indications (GI), making the system much larger in its scope of protection. A geographical indication is used to denominate products with a specific geographical origin and which possess qualities, reputation, or characteristics that are essentially attributable to that same place. Appellations of origin, by comparison, have much stricter criteria for their use.

The updates under the Geneva Act had been adopted over the objections of various non-members of the Lisbon system, who questioned both the changes made and the fact that voting in the diplomatic conference which adopted the new deal was limited only to Lisbon contracting parties.

One of the issues which had been unresolved at the time was how to fund the new GI registry system that will come from the expanded scope of Lisbon, given that WIPO will be faced with an additional workload in administering that system.

In a statement made during the first day of the WIPO Assemblies, the US – a key non-Lisbon country – argued that it could not support the overall 2016-2017 programme and budget for the organisation, given that “the Lisbon Union declined to fund itself as required by its treaty.”

“We are concerned about the diversion of WIPO’s resources by a small group representing less than one-sixth of the total membership,” the US representative said, adding that Washington would have preferred more “inclusive dialogue” on how to protect GIs at the UN agency.

Furthermore, the US said, “we are facing serious questions about why and how US fees and contributions are required to subsidise the Lisbon system when it is so harmful to US trade,” citing concerns by stakeholders over whether the new GI protections under the updated treaty will be trade-distorting.

IGC mandate renewal?

Another major issue that officials will have to face during this year’s Assemblies will be whether to renew the mandate of the Intergovernmental Committee on Traditional Knowledge, Genetic Resources, and Folklore (IGC).

The IGC was established 15 years ago, in light of concerns raised by biodiversity-rich countries and indigenous peoples regarding the misappropriation of their genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge and cultural expressions.

In this context, the committee has been focused on developing an international instrument(s) to address one or all of these issues; however, this process has struggled to come to completion, given disagreements among WIPO members over the level of maturity of the work to date, as well as the legal nature of the proposed outcomes.

At last year’s Assemblies, WIPO members were unable to reach consensus on an IGC work plan, given the continued disagreements in this area. (See Bridges Weekly, 2 October 2014)

The issue of mandate renewal has taken on a particular urgency, given that this must be renewed on a biennial basis. Should it not be renewed at this meeting, it will otherwise expire.

Ahead of the meeting, proposals have been submitted by individual members or groups on both the renewal itself, as well as its content.

For example, the Holy See, Kenya, Mozambique, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland have submitted a document which suggests that the Committee “continue to expedite its work with open and full engagement on text-based negotiations with the objective of reaching an agreement during the 2016/17 biennium on a text(s) of an international legal instrument(s) on intellectual property, and which will ensure the effective and balanced protection of GRs, TK and TCEs.”

Under this proposal, a work programme for the committee would also be finalised by the end of this year for 2016-2017, and the IGC would be requested to submit to the 2016 WIPO General Assembly the text(s) of an international legal instrument(s) as at that time, both for the purposes of comment and for general information. The proposal would also require the IGC to report to the 2017 General Assembly as to future work in this area, including the possible convening of a diplomatic conference – the highest level of negotiations at WIPO.

Meanwhile, the African Group has proposed that the IGC be turned into a standing committee at WIPO, noting that “it is an unfortunate fact that the procedural challenge of renewing the IGC mandate every biennium has attained the level of focus and investment that should be accorded substantive discussions.”

This proposed standing committee, referred to as the Standing Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Traditional Cultural Expressions (SCTK) under the African Group proposal, would build on past IGC work and submit a recommendation to the 2017 General Assembly on the text(s) of an international legal instrument(s).

A third proposal on the IGC has been tabled by the US, which has also suggested replacing the IGC, but with an “Ad Hoc Experts Working Group.”

“The push for accelerated work, and then the ultimate collapse of that work, last year was due to a significant lack of consensus on fundamental issues, such as objectives and principles of the IGC, subject matter of protection, scope of protection, beneficiaries and exceptions,” the US explained, noting how many brackets still remain in the IGC text.

Having this expert group be established, along with holding seminars and conducting studies, could help “address fundamental and cross-cutting concepts for the upcoming biennium” in order to help find “commonality” in the various unresolved IGC issues.

Yet other proposals have been submitted by other WIPO member groups, such as the Group of Latin American and Carribean countries (GRULAC), which reportedly have also urged the committee’s renewal, according to IP-Watch.

Other WIPO countries have argued against the committee’s renewal, on the grounds that the long-standing difficulties in advancing the talks require another approach.

“We  should  draw  the  appropriate  conclusions  from  the inability  of  the  IGC  to  reach  an agreement within the current framework and parameters,” said Germany in its opening statement, urging other alternatives and arguing against renewal. “Consequently, we believe that a continuation of  the  discussions  as within the parameters of the working methods of the  previous years  would not contribute to efficient  use  of  WIPO's  time  and  resources,  or  of  those  of  the  delegations  to  the  IGC.”

Broadcast, design treaties

Whether this year’s meetings will also see movement on other proposed WIPO treaties – such as for a Design Law Treaty to simplify the registration of industrial designs, or another treaty for the protection of broadcasters’ rights – are also key questions for policy watchers.

Last year, the Assemblies postponed to 2015 the decision on whether to convene a diplomatic conference on the Design Law Treaty. (See Bridges Weekly, 2 October 2014) The treaty is negotiated under WIPO’s Standing Committee on the Law of Trademarks, Industrial Designs and Geographical Indications (SCT).

Meanwhile, the broadcaster rights’ treaty, which similarly failed to see advances at last year’s Assemblies, is also expected to come up during this year’s talks. The latter treaty is negotiated under the auspices of WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR).

A full update on the results of the WIPO Assemblies will be published by Bridges following the conclusion of the meetings.

ICTSD reporting; “Countries Seek Ways To Restore Work On Traditional Knowledge Protection at WIPO,” INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY WATCH, 6 October 2015; “WIPO Members Urge Action on Range of Treaties,” INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY WATCH, 6 October 2015.

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