The World Intellectual Property Organization and the Development Agenda

By May, Christopher | Global Governance, April-June 2007 | Go to article overview

The World Intellectual Property Organization and the Development Agenda


May, Christopher, Global Governance


Until recently it was seldom remarked that for over thirty years the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has been a specialized agency of the United Nations. As a specialized agency, the WIPO is meant to reflect and respond to priorities set in the UN General Assembly--priorities often related to the promotion of economic development in the poorer country members of the UN, and that are part of the mandate of a number of other specialized agencies. However, the WIPO takes a specific (and idiosyncratic) view of development; its documents and activities suggest that development is best served by a strong intellectual property regime. This is to say that the WIPO sees promoting the use of intellectual property rights (IPRs) throughout the global system as the best way to support economic development.

In the last two decades, the WIPO has spent some time fighting back from its partial marginalization during the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations, which resulted in the establishment of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement. (1) A key element of this project, to reinsert the organization into the politics of international policy around intellectual property, is its Patent Agenda, established at the turn of the millennium. The Patent Agenda has encompassed a number of sets of treaty negotiations at the WIPO aimed at strengthening the international enforcement of patents while also widening their scope. Although the pro-IPRs position that underpins the Patent Agenda is strongly held by the negotiators and representatives of the WIPO's richest and most developed members, it is not universally supported among the organization's wider membership. Hence, in 2004, a group of the WIPO's members set out a new Development Agenda as a direct response to the Patent Agenda.

The Development Agenda originated in a proposal that Argentina and Brazil informally circulated to the members of the WIPO at the beginning of September 2004, for the then imminent WIPO General Assembly. (2) Although there had been some discussion of the developmental dimension of intellectual property at previous assemblies, this was the first time since the WIPO's establishment in 1970 that a linked agenda, rather than merely a fragmented set of measures raised during assembly meetings, had been proposed. Almost immediately upon presentation, the proposed Development Agenda gathered another eleven cosponsors (Bolivia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, and Venezuela) and became the focus for developing country negotiations at the WIPO, led by the Group of Friends of Development, a group made up of the two original proposers of the agenda alongside the cosponsors, and Peru and Uruguay. The central concern of the Development Agenda's supporters is to make development a central concern for the WIPO, which hitherto has presented itself to the world as merely a technical agency with no political role in the global system. In this article, I briefly set out the shape of the Development Agenda and explore its political significance.

The Development Agenda

The Development Agenda focuses on an assertion that has been central to the WIPO's practices: that the WIPO exists to "promote intellectual property" through technical/legal support of its members. The agenda calls into question the compatibility of this goal with the expected objectives of an agency associated with the United Nations. The UN's other (development-oriented) specialized agencies place technology transfer and poverty alleviation above the globalized protection of the IPRs in order of importance. Indeed, in the original treaty making the WIPO a specialized agency of the UN, it was obliged to work with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to promote and facilitate "the transfer of technology to developing countries in such a manner as to assist these countries in attainting their objectives in the fields of science and technology and trade and development" (Article 10, emphasis added). …

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