Survey On IP: Policymakers Believe Junk Statistics; North-South Divide Dissolving

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Preliminary findings of a survey aimed at mapping the current prevailing ideas on intellectual property confirmed recognised trends that academics and intergovernmental IP professionals look more favourably on weaker IP protection, and traditional North-South differences toward IP rights are becoming less clear cut. It also found that policymakers tend to rely heavily on statistics from industry to help them with their decisions, whether reliable or not.

The International Centre on Trade and Sustainable Development invited IP specialists to attend an informal dialogue on 26 November to present the preliminary findings of a survey carried out by Jean-Frédéric Morin, professor of international relations at the Political Science Department of the Université libre de Bruxelles (Belgium). The dialogue was aimed at understanding where prevailing ideas originate and how they are being transmitted.

According to Morin, the underlying assumption of the survey is that ideas matter to explain policymaking and lawmaking. The survey, he said, was carried out across a large target of professionals devoting at least 10 percent of working time to IP. These ranged across academia, law firms, businesses, intergovernmental organisations, governments, and non-governmental organisations, from which 1,679 completed the survey.

The main findings presented a rather moderate view on IP protection across a number of IP-related professions.

Academics, IGOs Mellowing on IP

The survey reveals that NGOs tend to have a “minimalist” position towards IP protection. However, academics and international civil servants answered that over the last 10 years, they had become generally more favourable to weaker IP protection.

In particular, according to Morin, academics have more minimalist views than all other professional groups, except for NGOs. He said that those views could be linked to the academics’ scepticism on the social and economic impact of IP, and that they tend to take a precautionary approach, while NGOs are more focussed on the negative social impacts of IP.

The survey also shows that IP professionals who devote more than 50 percent of their time to IP activities tend to be more maximalist than professionals less involved in the subject.

North-South Difference Blurring

Although global debates often present a north-south divide on IP issues, the survey shows that while developing countries still are more minimalist than developed countries, it is not to a large extent, Morin said. The survey also found that NGO advocates in developed countries hold more minimalist views than NGO advocates in developing countries.

The survey found that years of education had the opposite effect of years of experience in terms of the way IP protection is considered. Surprisingly, Morin said, professionals from developing countries having received an education in a developed country such as the European Union or the United States, come back with more minimalist views than counterparts who were educated in their home country.

The number of years spent in a developed country university accentuates the effect, the survey results show, but further investigation would be required to confirm this finding, given the relatively small sub-sample of government officials born in a developing country.

Policymakers Influenced by Statistics, Good or Bad

The survey also revealed what arguments are most likely to be convincing to government officials in their policymaking. The results highlighted by the survey are both “very interesting and disturbing,” said Morin.

According to the responses received, for policymakers from both developed and developing countries, “what really makes an argument convincing for them is to come with numbers and come with statistics,” he said. This “is disturbing for a number of reasons” he added, since from the survey, he found that very few policymakers have any training in economics.

Moreover, he added, “I know very well that a lot of junk statistics [are] being circulated on IP.”

“It is perfectly fine for me if the brand name pharmaceutical companies and generic companies like to circulate information on how many jobs will be created if they adopt this or that policy, but I consider those numbers as being junk statistics,” said Morin. “I am getting really concerned if policymakers believe that those statistics are actually meaningful.”

Another disturbing point, according to Morin, speaking from an academic point of view, “is that most policymakers are more convinced if information is coming from someone with firsthand experience,” than if it comes “from what is perceived as a neutral source of information.” Academics like to think of themselves as being neutral, he said.

“The policy implication of this research is linked to the fact that statistics seem to be very convincing although there are very few reliable statistics available,” Morin said. “This, partly because there is few data, and partly because it is extremely difficult to model innovation,” he said. “People need to be aware not only on what we know, but importantly on what we don’t know and we don’t hear enough on what we don’t know and might never actually know,” he added.

Most respondents came from high-income countries, Morin said, adding that the survey being web-base might have restricted the responses of low-income country persons surveyed. Some 40 percent of the respondents worked in application or examination, 34 percent in policymaking, and 16 percent in litigation.

The survey established a “maximalist index” based on the responses. It is used to evaluate the respondents’ general views on IP to show whether they would favour a stronger IP protection of rather a weaker system.

It is difficult, said Morin, to come to definitive conclusions from the survey. This difficulty arises mostly from the uncertainties regarding the representativeness of the sample, and the relatively small size of some sub-samples, creating some bias.

The study based on the results of the survey is expected to be released by ICTSD in the near future.

Catherine Saez may be reached at

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