WIPO’s Gurry Says ‘Crisis In Multilateralism’ Bringing Changes To IP

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The rapid pace of technology and dramatic shifts in the global economy will bring change to the multilateral structure set up after the Second World War, and these changes will affect the intellectual property system, World Intellectual Property Organization Director General Francis Gurry said this week.

Often seen as a rather technical body, Gurry’s remarks are reminiscent that WIPO is part of the larger global UN system.

In an interview, video available here, ahead of a 15 December speech at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Gurry said “our capacity as an international community” to reach agreements is reduced, much slower than the pace of change. There is a “crisis in multilateralism,” he said, leading states to look for other opportunities such as bilateral, regional, plurilateral and other types of agreements.

In addition, there is a substantive shift in patent filing reflecting shifts in global economic position. The top five patent filers last year were: the United States, Japan, Germany, Korea and China (which passed countries like France and United Kingdom). India and Brazil also are rising.

The global political architecture is “out of kilter” with economic reality, where a structure of developed and developing countries is too simplistic. And there will be a process of slowly bringing the political architecture into line with these realities, he said.

Gurry gave an example of the role of multilateral institutions. Current mobile phones contain more than 5,000 patents, belonging to more than 50 entities. Yet consumers expect it to work when they step off a plane anywhere. “That is the role of the multilateral,” he said.

“We had one patent system for everything from agricultural machinery to molecular biology,” he said. But as the component of knowledge in production expands and becomes more economically valuable, “we will see a more sophisticated system of knowledge rights emerge,” he said. “I think that’s inevitable.”

The “trick” will be how to maintain differentiation, he said, where certain economic outcomes are desired such as providing incentives to innovation with a simple system.

Gurry gave the example of longstanding patent reform efforts in the United States. There, the information technology industry said that it should not be possible to get an injunction as a remedy for violation of a patent, as it could bring down a whole series of related technologies, making it too powerful an instrument. Conversely, the pharmaceutical industry said that injunctions are the essence of their competitiveness.

“Maybe they were both right,” he said. And so sectoral differentiation may be needed help achieve all goals.

Communication Problems and New Models

Gurry’s view on intellectual property rights protection is that in the short term, society pays a price to ensure payment for inventors and creators in order to obtain a long-term gain for society.

“We always have a communication problem with intellectual property,” he said, getting people to understand that need for incentives. “Intellectual property is all about balance,” he added. But knowledge also needs to be shared and the balance may not be quite right at this point, he said.

Meanwhile, changes need to occur in how the multilateral level functions. In the past, Gurry said, the treaty was the “sacred approach.” But they can take perhaps five years to negotiate and another 10-20 years for implementation at the national level.

Technology and business models evolve much faster than multilateral processes for reaching agreement, he said, noting that while nations deliberate over one policy, they are “watching the world disappear in the distance at a speed that is much, much, much faster.” National governments face similar problems. They are trying legislate for a moving target.

“One of things the world is telling us is that platforms can be much more important than treaties,” he said, offering Twitter, Facebook and other social media as examples. “Could you have brought social change as they have by a treaty? No.” he said. So the world is seeing public-private partnerships using platforms to bring policy outcomes that once were achieved by treaty.

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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  1. Freedom says

    Multilateralism is dying a slow death due to a large number of UN officials and country representatives all becoming celebrities. Negotiating fora became more about personal ideologies, or better, personal advancement. In the realm of IP, it is now about a personality, his contribution to the reformed IP landscape, and about lack of faith and trust in many of the personalities purported to be neutral. The Wikileaks cable on the UN system testifies to this: read cables published in the guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/series/us-embassy-cables-the-documents+unitednations, especially cable http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/219058. Also, IP-watch was/is partially part of the problem. The articles are starting to read as one-sided.


  1. […] “The frustration with the lengthy negotiations and the length of those negotiations over matters that we should be able to resolve have been hung up, as you know, for a very long time,” she said, adding that to the level of its director, WIPO is aware that people who seek patent protection may find ways around WIPO. The director general of WIPO, Francis Gurry, signalled that he got the message this week (IPW, WIPO, 16 December 2010). […]

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