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    Trading Knowledge As A Public Good: A Proposal For The WTO

    Published on 14 October 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    By for Intellectual Property Watch

    Years of deadlock in the Doha Round of trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) has prompted some to question the institution’s effectiveness, and even, its relevance. But for others, the stalemate seems to be favourable for new ideas and new ways to think about global trade.

    During the 19-21 September WTO Public Forum 2011, Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) and IQsensato, both not-for-profit organisations, held a joint panel session on a proposal to the WTO entitled, “An Agreement on the Supply of Knowledge as a Global Public Good.” The 21 September session provided a space to debate the feasibility of adding the supply of public goods involving knowledge as a new category in negotiated binding commitments in international trade.

    James Love, director of KEI, presented the idea. “The agreement,” he explained, “combines voluntary offers with binding commitments by governments to increase the supply of heterogeneous public goods. It would be analogous to existing WTO commitments to reducing tariffs, subsidies, or liberalising services.”

    Limited access

    The idea of “public goods” has been around for a while. A KEI 2008 paper on the proposal [pdf], John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 book, The Affluent Society, which created a stir about society’s over-supply of private goods versus a growing under-supply of public goods. The KEI paper also cites the contribution to the debate made by Joseph Stiglitz, who identified five global public good categories: international economic stability, international security (political stability), the international environment, international humanitarian assistance, and knowledge.

    It’s this last category that KEI would like to see put up for negotiation. According to its 2008 paper, “In recent decades, an influential and controversial enclosure movement has vastly expanded the boundaries of what knowledge can be ‘owned,’ lengthened the legal terms of protection and enhanced the legal rights granted to owners of the collection of legal rights referred to as “intellectual property.”

    Proposal advocates argue that in the wake of such knowledge protection, the global community faces an under-supply of public goods, including knowledge. Shandana Gulzar Khan, of the permanent mission of Pakistan to the WTO, seconds this sentiment. “I feel that an acute restriction of access to public goods and services is indeed a reality for the majority of the world’s population.”

    Love argued that the WTO is the right international institutional to contribute to the solution. He cited a description of the WTO found on its website: “Above all, it’s a negotiating forum…Essentially, the WTO is a place where member governments go, to try to sort out the trade problems they face with each other…. Although negotiated and signed by governments, the goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business, while allowing governments to meet social and environmental objectives.”

    Defining Good

    When it comes to defining what qualifies as a global public good, Love mentioned how the International Task Force on Global Public Goods describes them as goods that “address issues that are deemed to be important to the international community; and that cannot, or will not, be adequately addressed by individual countries acting alone.” The list of such priorities is long and far-reaching.

    Examples of potential ask/offers includes collaborative funding of inducement prizes to reward open source innovation in areas of climate change, sustainable agriculture and medicine; agreement to fund biomedical research in areas of great importance, such as new antibiotics, avian influenza, and the development of an AIDS vaccine; funding of projects to improve functionality and usability of free software; and new open public domain tools for distance education.

    Some experts cautioned that deriving a universal definition of what constitutes global public goods is a tall task. Panel speaker Antony Taubman, director of the Intellectual Property Division at the WTO, cautioned that public goods do not bring with them an idea of prioritization. “One of the underlying challenges, of course, is how to multi-lateralise the concept of public goods…. What might be considered a high priority public good from one country’s perspective would possibly be even rejected by another country.”

    Taubman mentioned hormones for beef or genetically modified crops as current examples of controversial public goods. “Would one country’s contribution of a new drought resistant genetically modified crop really be considered a valuable public good by countries that regarded that as an inappropriate technology?”

    Another panellist, José Estanislau do Amaral from the permanent mission of Brazil to the WTO and other economic organisations in Geneva, suggested ways to take the proposal forward.

    “There seems to be a double objective in the proposal,” he said. “One is to support the creation of certain public goods and the other one is to increase access to those goods. Both of course are interlinked and they are mutually reinforcing. But they are objectives in themselves…. I am inclined, at this stage, to suggest that there might be benefits in those two objectives being pursued separately. Access to existing knowledge must not be required to wait for the supply of new knowledge.”

    The Brazilian official suggested that KEI construct a structured draft treaty of the proposal so there could be a more advanced debate on the idea. Love said that a draft agreement should be ready by the end of February 2012.

    Rachel Marusak Hermann may be reached at info@ip-watch.org.

     

    Comments

    1. October 24, 2011 says:

      [...] An IP Watch story describes a panel at the WTO Public Forum last month hosted by Knowledge Ecology International and IQ Sensato, which discussed a proposed “Agreement on the Supply of Knowledge as a Public Good.” According to KEI Director James Love, the proposal “combines voluntary offers with binding commitments by governments to increase the supply of heterogeneous public goods. It would be analogous to existing WTO commitments to reducing tariffs, subsidies, or liberalising services.”  A draft agreement may be ready by March 2012. Click here for the IP Watch Story. [...]


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    We welcome your participation in article and blog comment threads, and other discussion forums, where we encourage you to analyse and react to the content available on the Intellectual Property Watch website. By participating in discussions or reader forums, or by submitting opinion pieces or comments to articles, blogs, reviews or multimedia features, you are consenting to these rules.

    We welcome your participation in article and blog comment threads, and other discussion forums, where we encourage you to analyse and react to the content available on the Intellectual Property Watch website.

    By participating in discussions or reader forums, or by submitting opinion pieces or comments to articles, blogs, reviews or multimedia features, you are consenting to these rules.

    1. You agree that you are fully responsible for the content that you post. You will not knowingly post content that violates the copyright, trademark, patent or other intellectual property right of any third party or which you know is under a confidentiality obligation preventing its publication and that you will request removal of the same should you discover that you have violated this provision. Likewise, you may not post content that is libelous, defamatory, obscene, abusive, that violates a third party's right to privacy, that otherwise violates any applicable local, state, national or international law, that amounts to spamming or that is otherwise inappropriate. You may not post content that degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual preference, disability or other classification. Epithets and other language intended to intimidate or to incite violence are also prohibited. Furthermore, you may not impersonate others.

    2. You understand and agree that Intellectual Property Watch is not responsible for any content posted by you or third parties. You further understand that IP Watch does not monitor the content posted. Nevertheless, IP Watch may monitor the any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove, edit or otherwise alter content that it deems inappropriate for any reason whatever without consent nor notice. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on our site. IP Watch is not in any manner endorsing the content of the discussion forums and cannot and will not vouch for its reliability or otherwise accept liability for it.

    3. By submitting any contribution to IP Watch, you warrant that your contribution is your own original work and that you have the right to make it available to IP Watch for all purposes and you agree to indemnify IP Watch, its directors, employees and agents against all damages, legal fees and others expenses that may be incurred by IP Watch as a result of your breach of warranty or of these terms.

    4. You further agree not to publish any personal information about yourself or anyone else (for example telephone number or home address). If you add a comment to a blog, be aware that your email address will be apparent.

    5. IP Watch will not be liable for any loss including but not limited to the following (whether such losses are foreseen, known or otherwise): loss of data, loss of revenue or anticipated profit, loss of business, loss of opportunity, loss of goodwill or injury to reputation, losses suffered by third parties, any indirect, consequential or exemplary damages.

    6. You understand and agree that the discussion forums are to be used only for non-commercial purposes. You may not solicit funds, promote commercial entities or otherwise engage in commercial activity in our discussion forums.

    7. You acknowledge and agree that you use and/or rely on any information obtained through the discussion forums at your own risk.

    8. For any content that you post, you hereby grant to IP Watch the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, exclusive and fully sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part, world-wide and to incorporate it in other works, in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.

    9. These terms and your posts and contributions shall be governed and interpreted in accordance with the laws of Switzerland (without giving effect to conflict of laws principles thereof) and any dispute exclusively settled by the Courts of the Canton of Geneva.

     

     
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