The World Intellectual Property Organization: A United Nations Success Story

By Mossinghoff, Gerald J.; Oman, Ralph | World Affairs, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The World Intellectual Property Organization: A United Nations Success Story


Mossinghoff, Gerald J., Oman, Ralph, World Affairs


NASCUNTUR AB HUMANO INGENIO OMNIA ARTIS INVENTORUMQUE OPERA * QUAE OPERA DIGNAM HOMINIBUS VITAM SAEPIUNT * REIPUBLICAE STUDIO PERSPICIENDUM EST ARTES INVENTAQUE TUTAR(1)

The United Nations, despite new Secretary General Kofi Annan, continues to draw hostile fire in the United States. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, bluntly demands further cuts in the "bloated" UN bureaucracy. Other officials, some largely supportive, wonder about an apparent UN death wish, pointing to the renewed effort to hamstring the Security Council, the refusal to embrace major house cleaning, and the resurgence of an inflammatory rhetoric that pits region against region.

These controversies overshadow a real success story--the extraordinary achievements of the UN's most effective specialized agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). By working relentlessly to raise the level of protection for patents, copyrights, and trademarks worldwide, the WIPO has done more to harness human creativity for social progress than any other international organization in history. The United States, as a world leader in sectors highly dependent on intellectual property protection--including aerospace, publishing, computer technology, industrial electronics, pharmaceuticals, motion pictures, and sound recordings--naturally plays an active role in the work of the WIPO. Perhaps more surprising, a growing number of developing countries are key players as well. They have come to realize that they need strong intellectual property protection to promote their own economic development and to preserve their cultural traditions.

Adam Smith taught us that the wealth of nations rested on three pillars: labor, capital, and natural resources. Our generation has added a fourth pillar--intellectual property in all of its forms: patents to protect new technology, copyrights to protect literary and artistic works as well as computer software, and trademarks to assure orderly commercial development and consumer protection. New systems of intellectual property law protect, for example, integrated circuits and automated databases. Intellectual property also drives the Global Information Infrastructure--including the Internet. In each of these areas, the WIPO has worked with member countries to harmonize their legal regimes and to revise their intellectual property law to meet minimum international standards. The WIPO, which today has more than 160 members, was established as a UN agency only three decades ago, but it traces its roots back more than a century. Today, it administers twenty major intellectual property treaties, and it promotes the adoption of needed new treaties. It also works constantly to update existing treaties to make certain that they remain relevant in an age of fast-paced technological change. These treaties include the 1883 Paris Convention on patents and trademarks(2) and the 1886 Berne convention on copyrights.(3)

In recent years, the WIPO has carried out one of its most urgent goals: providing legal and technical assistance in intellectual property to developing countries and to those previously socialist countries now in transition to a free market economy. Its most recent successes were two important new treaties negotiated in December 1996 in Geneva. A new WIPO Copyright Treaty makes clear that authors get full copyright protection for their music and literary works in the digital environment, especially when those works appear on the Internet. A second new treaty, the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty, increases the level of protection for sound recordings, singers, and musicians worldwide and, again, specifies that the performers and the record companies can control the use of their music in cyberspace.

A brief review of the WIPO's principal areas of activity will highlight its major contributions.

PATENTS

Abraham Lincoln, with his usual elegant phrasing and insight, described the essence of the U. …

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