Intellectual Property and Emerging Global Issues

UN Chronicle, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Intellectual Property and Emerging Global Issues


The thousands of companies and organizations moving online to tap into the burgeoning market of Internet users has given rise to a new brand of cyber-piracy. Known in the wired world as "cybersquatting", it is the practice of pre-emptive registration of domain names for well-known or developing brands. Be it soap detergent or software, motor oil or medicine, any product or brand that has garnered even minimal public recognition rims a strong risk that the name, product or trademark, or numerous variations thereof, has already been claimed by a cybersquatter. The squatter, who had the prescience to register the name on a first-come, first-served basis for a minimal fee of about $100, will be more than willing to hand over the rights to your domain name - for a price far exceeding his initial investment. The rapid evolution of a global economy makes internationally respected norms in these areas all the more crucial. The fact that this sort of cyber-extortion has been flourishing, legally, for some time is but one of the many emerging global issues that is expanding and redefining the work of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The continuing advances in technology, not only in computers and communications, but also in medicine, biotechnology and generic research, call for new approaches to the questions of copyright and intellectual and industrial property.

"Globalization of trade means the handling, the usage and the utilization of works of the mind, by nations and peoples across international boundaries", notes Dr. Kamil Idris, Director-General of WIPO. While continuing to meet the needs of its member States, "WIPO also serves the interests and needs of a large, dynamic and growing group of market-oriented users of our intellectual property protection systems and services".

Based in Geneva, WIPO traces its origins to the 1883 signing of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, intended to provide international protection for patents, trademarks and industrial designs. Three years later, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works created an international instrument protecting creative works such as books, plays, music, art and architectural works. WIPO - the successor to an organization established to administer these treaties became a specialized agency of the United Nations system in 1974.

Some 21 treaties later, WIPO, with 171 member States and a staff of about 700 from 71 countries, has three main functions: the gradual development of international norms and standards for intellectual property protection; providing technical assistance and training to member countries; and international registration of patents and copyrights. As technology and global trade become more advanced, the demands of intellectual property protection become more complex.

In December 1998, the Organization issued a draft report proposing rules to curb such Internet trademark abuse as cybersquatting. It calls for domain name applicants to provide reliable contact details and agree to an inexpensive online dispute settlement system. In addition, WIPO has outlined a set of criteria that would further protect well-known trademarks.

The stakes are indeed high: Electronic commerce on the Internet grew from less than $3 billion in 1996 to upwards of $20 billion last year. It is expected to reach at least $200 billion by the year 2001. Nearly 5 million domain names are currently registered around the world, with some 70,000 new ones added weekly.

These regulations would prevent recurrence of cases such that experienced by the Exxon and Mobil Oil Corporations when they agreed to merge last fall. As news of the merger began to surface, cybersquatters quickly registered dozens of possible names for the new corporation, putting the two giants in the position of possibly having to negotiate for the right to use then' own well-known brand names on the Web. …

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