WIPO Assemblies Reach Eleventh-Hour Agreement on Divisive Issues

22 October 2015

The annual Assemblies of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) saw member states resolve or advance many crucial normative issues after over ten days of frenzied deliberations, which concluded only in the early morning hours of 15 October.

“The Assemblies produced a rich array of positive results as a consequence of the extraordinary engagement of the member states,” said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry at the end of the meeting, which was held at the organisation’s Geneva headquarters.  

Along with various normative outcomes, the Assemblies also approved a projected expenditure by the UN intellectual property agency of 707 million Swiss francs for 2016-2017, marking a 4.9 percent increase over the previous two years.

IGC mandate renewal

The renewal of the mandate of the Intergovernmental Committee on Traditional Knowledge, Genetic Resources, and Folklore (IGC) was one of the major issues facing the Assemblies this year. The issue had taken on a particular urgency as the committee’s mandate would have expired had a solution not been reached. (See Bridges Weekly, 8 October 2015)

The IGC was established in 2000, following concerns raised by biodiversity-rich countries and indigenous peoples regarding the misappropriation of their genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge and cultural expressions. The Committee has since been working toward developing an international instrument(s) to address one or all of these issues, with mixed results.

The mandate’s renewal was met with some reluctance by some developed countries, who had called for new methodologies to structure the IGC’s work, with a focus on seminars and further analysis. In contrast, the majority of developing countries wished to see a renewal of the mandate based on text-based negotiations to reach a clearly defined work programme that would lead to a binding international instrument(s).

“The proposal to undertake non-normative work and focus on discussions and seminars seeks to discount the resources and intellectual work invested by the members in the last few years,” said Nigeria, the regional coordinator for the African Group.

Ultimately, the Assemblies successfully reached a consensus on renewing the mandate and the work plan of the IGC for 2016-17.

According to the agreed mandate, the IGC will continue to “expedite its work,” including “text-based negotiations,” with the objective of reaching an agreement on an international legal instrument(s) that will ensure the “balanced and effective protection” of genetic resources, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.

The mandate also notes that studies, seminars, and workshops may complement the IGC’s work. The General Assembly in 2017 will take stock of progress made and decide on whether to convene a diplomatic conference – the highest level of negotiations at WIPO – or continue talks within the committee.

Lisbon funding

The Assemblies also saw the resolution of a key disagreement over the financing of both the Lisbon Agreement for the protection of appellations of origin as well as the new Geneva Act reached this year, which expanded the former’s scope to include geographical indications (GIs). (See Bridges Weekly, 28 May 2015)

At the opening of the assemblies, the US delegation had expressed its concern about “the diversion of WIPO’s resources by a small group [of Lisbon contracting parties] representing less than one-sixth of the total membership” and emphasised the need for the Lisbon Union to finance itself as required by the terms of the treaty.

The issue ultimately became part of the broader discussions about the adoption of the 2016-2017 programme and budget, given that the US had argued strongly against approving a budget that also covered Lisbon. The US is not a contracting party to Lisbon and had been among those vocally against the expansion of the agreement to include GIs, citing both the potential impacts this change could have on trade for non-parties, as well as regarding the voting process behind the changes.

Ultimately, member states agreed that the Lisbon Union Assembly would adopt measures by the 2016 WIPO Assemblies to “eliminate” the Lisbon Union’s deficit, to double the registration fees for appellations of origin, and to raise the fee for modifications, extractions, and attestations. In addition, member states decided to approve a loan from the reserves of the “contribution-financed” unions to Lisbon should these measures be insufficient to cover the deficit.

Pamela Hamamoto, the US’ Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, had noted in her opening remarks that “the Lisbon deficit that is projected for the biennium is quite small, and in fact we have identified funds already available at WIPO that could adequately cover this deficit, including the excess Madrid Union surplus that can be disbursed to all Madrid members, some of whom belong to the Lisbon Union.”

Furthermore, the US ambassador said, “we cannot support a framework under which the Lisbon System can carry a deficit and have that deficit covered by other Unions,” calling instead for an agreement on ensuring that the Lisbon System becomes self-sustaining and no longer requires support from other Unions in covering its deficit.

France, one of the Lisbon Union’s long-time supporters, highlighted the decision’s importance, noting that “the benefits will be seen in the years to come.”

Design treaty, other advances

Another key development during this year’s Assemblies was the progress seen on WIPO’s Design Law Treaty, which aims to simplify the registration of industrial designs.

Member states have agreed to convene a diplomatic conference on the treaty in the early stages of 2017, following the completion of the Standing Committee on the Law of Trademarks, Industrial Designs and Geographical Indications’ (SCT) discussions on “technical assistance” and a possible “disclosure of origin” requirement aimed at protecting traditional assets from misappropriation.

A “disclosure of origin” requirement for genetic resources and traditional knowledge in industrial design application was originally proposed by the African Group to prevent misappropriation of traditional industrial designs. 

Separately, member states also directed the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) to continue its work on the protection of broadcasting organisations, limitations and exceptions for libraries and archives, and limitations and exceptions for educational and research institutions and persons with other disabilities.

The Assemblies also adopted guiding principles on the opening of any future WIPO external offices and agreed to open a maximum of three new offices during both the 2016-17 and 2018-19 periods, while giving priority to the African continent as a host.

ICTSD reporting.

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