WIPO Seeks To Calm Anxiety About Technical Assistance To North Korea

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The UN World Intellectual Property Organization has responded to a question about its provision of technical assistance to North Korea, saying it is standard procedure as authorised by its member states hoping to bring developing countries on board the global IP system.

“The provision of a modest amount of computer equipment to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is part of WIPO’s standard technical assistance program to developing countries,” a WIPO spokesperson said in a statement. “It does not violate any UN Security Council resolutions.”

WIPO delivers technical assistance to most of its members, often in the form of computers to enable intellectual property offices’ capabilities. It oversees the computer installation and does follow up visits to confirm their proper use, according to a WIPO source. This week, the question arose about whether it should provide computers to countries against which restrictions are imposed by the UN to prevent nuclear proliferation. But the source said there could not be any danger of misuse of ordinary computers installed for patent database searches and the like.

North Korea is a member of WIPO, as are countries such as Iran and Cuba, reflecting the diversity and convening power of the UN. Member states approve the WIPO program and budget every year and are generally aware of the type of technical assistance the organisation is providing, though every single project is not cleared as they occur.

“The program, mandated by WIPO’s 185 member states, has been supporting IP offices in developing countries to facilitate the processing of patent and trademark applications since the 1990s,” the WIPO spokesperson said in the statement. “In 2011, technical assistance was provided under this program to over 80 countries/IP offices. The assistance is made available to member states in the context of WIPO’s wider development program.”

WIPO has helped North Korea’s IP office with technical assistance in the past, without questions being raised. “IP offices need computers,” the WIPO source said.

“The office automation assistance to the DPRK is intended to enhance the efficiency of patent processing operations,” the spokesperson said. “The project was developed in accordance with WIPO’s needs-assessment and validation procedures and followed due processes – procurement and other – applicable in this context.”

The difference this time is that a conflagatory article appearing on Fox online this week documented WIPO’s provision of computers to North Korea and raised alarm that this might run afoul of UN rules limiting the giving of technology to the country. Fox is a highly politicised US website with a tradition of conservative UN-bashing. Fox follower Gene Quinn of the US IPWatchdog blog readily picked up the story.

The Fox article included a WIPO Staff Council letter which suggested member states are not aware of this type of activity by the secretariat. The article also included a 7-page internal memorandum from WIPO General Counsel Edward Kwakwa, providing an assessment that the activity is not in violation of UN rules.

The reason the assistance caught attention this time is that the payment to a contractor for the computers exceeded $50,000 (it was $52,638). It was made from a US bank in New York by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – which handles technical assistance programme payments in coordination with WIPO – so the amount triggered a routine check of the transfer.

WIPO has since completed the payment, to the Chinese company that did the work, through a non-US channel, a source said.

“Standard technical assistance under this program includes needs-assessment, assistance in planning of modernization of technical infrastructure in IP offices and training of officers in such offices, the provision of WIPO’s software for IP office automation, and the provision of basic office IT equipment for electronic procedures of IP office functions and services,” the spokesperson said.

WIPO is currently undergoing a review of its technical assistance through the Committee on Development and IP, mainly to ensure that it is sufficiently development-friendly and effective (IPW, WIPO, 3 April 2012).

Perhaps providing computers will be something the member states decide to discuss at the next annual WIPO General Assembly in September. Even a technical body like one dealing with intellectual property rights is not immune from global political trends.

[Note: North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.]

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

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