A Closer Look Into A WIPO Regional Workshop: Making An Instant IP Whiz

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Manila, Philippines – Another destructive typhoon was battering southern Philippines last week, but this did not stop the majority of the delegates coming from the provinces near the affected areas from flying to the capital to attend what organisers touted as a trailblazing programme that has the potential to raise awareness of sophisticated intellectual property tools and policies at the grassroots level in developing countries.

Reoper Cagayle, a faculty member at the Northern Negros State College, a small, vocational agricultural college in Western Visayas – a region located south of the capital – said the list of speakers for the workshop was impressive. He told Intellectual Property Watch he was hopeful at the outset of the event that he could bring some new knowledge home with him at the end of the three-day workshop.

A first-timer to a World Intellectual Property Organization workshop, Cagayle admitted that he came with little knowledge on IP tools and policies, adding that he was told his school produced just one patent on food processing, with the school failing to monetise it after the grant.

Ricardo Blancaflor, the director general of the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines, said most of the country’s universities and colleges and their faculty lack exposure to IP. He cited the results of a study done two years ago, in which out of a thousand science projects and theses in Philippine universities, 27 percent were found to be patentable but ended up not being protected due to lack of information on the IP system.

“They don’t know much about IP. We have a lot of innovations that are happening in the universities that are not entering the IP world. Many of them are still in the ‘publish or perish’ mode, and that is what we want to change,” Blancaflor said in an interview with Intellectual Property Watch. The phrase “publish or perish” is used to refer to the common practice among local academic institutions here to publish immediately upon completion their works in scientific journals and other publications, and as a result throw them into the public domain, making them no longer eligible for patent protection.

Breaking the Habit

The workshop from 5-7 December is part of the two-year-old programme of the Philippine IP Office called the Innovation and Technology Support Offices (ITSOs), which aims to demystify and democratize the patent system by building a network of support offices in strategic areas and institutions in the country. For this particular programme, the Philippines has chosen to focus on universities and colleges with strong programmes in science and technology and engineering.

The ITSO project is the local spin-off to WIPO’s Technology and Innovation Support Centers (TISCs), a Development Agenda-bred programme that aims to “provide innovators in developing countries with access to locally-based, high-quality technology information and related services.” More details about the TISCs are here.

Blancaflor said his office has set a target to grow the network of schools to 84 by year-end, out of an estimated total of 300, with 17 schools from region 6 of the country (Western Visayas) and nearby provinces becoming the newest members to join the network. Western Visayas is one of the areas affected by Typhoon Pablo, the strongest typhoon to enter the country this year, incidentally just two days before the start of the workshop.

On the first day of the workshop, the Philippine IP Office signed memoranda of understanding with the 17 universities and colleges, and complementary agreements with the Philippine Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Philippine Association of State Universities and Colleges.

The Philippine IP Office also signed agreements on the further development of the ITSOs programme with the international organisation Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), South Korean technical IP solutions and services provider Worldwide Intellectual Property Service Co., Ltd. for the use and access to a patent database, and with Ideaspace Foundation, Inc. for a grant to a chosen university in the ITSO network.

An ITSO university or college gets training support from the Philippine IP Office, with the latter helping them set up its own IP office. They also teach appointed academics in the office how to get started with the school’s own IP policy, how to draft and file patent applications, and how to use or commercialise the patents. This frees the schools from hiring expensive patent lawyers and business consultants. For this programme, WIPO’s role is to hold the workshops and provide the experts.

“Hopefully, this will help address the brain drain in universities,” Blancaflor said. Here, it is common for home-grown academic talent, researchers and scientists, particularly those coming from state-funded institutions, to either join the private sector or leave the country to seek better opportunities. He noted that universities and their faculty, scientists and researchers could eventually profit from the patent system through royalties once successful commercialisation of university patents takes off.

When asked on how receptive universities and colleges are to the programme, Blancaflor said: “They are very receptive. Of course, in the beginning there were some resistance because they didn’t know any better. But after we started with one, everybody wants to become a member.”

With the programme just two years old, Blancaflor said it is already making inroads as proven by the fact that six patents have already been filed since the program started.

During the workshop, it was evident that IP as a concept and as a tool for development is fairly new among the country’s universities and colleges. Even the University of the Philippines, the premier state university in the country which dates its long history to the early part of the American colonial period in 1908, has embraced IP only recently.

Elizabeth Pulumbarit, legal counsel for UP’s Technology Transfer and Business Development Office, told Intellectual Property Watch in an interview that as of its last audit, her office was only able to tally 40 patent applications. With the recent changes to its laws, such as restricting public access to student theses and granting bigger incentive to inventors, she said that the university is hoping that the number would improve. Recent legal changes also have allowed the state university to be able to put up two spin-off companies that will commercialise results of university-funded research. The companies are targeted to start operation by next year.

Philippine academic institutions’ lackluster performance in the area of IP is due to a confluence of many factors. Topping the list is the fact that, in general, the national budget for education remains low at 2.1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) for this year, a little more than a third of the United Nation’s minimum recommended national investment on education at 6 percent. Lack of funding is also a factor for higher education institutions, particularly state-owned colleges and universities. Also, most of the state-funded institutions are prohibited by their charters from engaging in business activities such as setting up spin-off companies.

In addition, in a practice that is not unique to the Philippines but also happening in most universities around the world, Yumiko Hamano, WIPO senior program officer for innovation, told the delegates at the workshop that universities tend to work in their own. “Thirty percent of the research are already redundant, they are already done elsewhere and already made available free of charge on the internet.”

IP off the Pedestal

Similar to other developing countries, the volume of patent activity in the Philippines is still low and with the activities dominated by foreign applicants who want to protect their imported inventions in the country.

Data collated from the Philippine IP Office showed that the number of invention patent filings in 2011 was 3,010 from non-residents and 186 from resident applicants. Patents granted to non-residents for the same year were at 1,129 and 6 for residents. Compare these numbers, for instance, with more developed Asian neighbour Japan, which in 2010 received 344,598 patent applications and registered 222,693 patents.

Onyeama: IP Volume not the Only Measure of Development

Geoffrey Onyeama, WIPO deputy director general for development sector, said the volume of IP activities alone in a country is not a sufficient tool in validating the strong link between IP and development.

“It is true that at the moment that IP is skewed heavily in favour of industrialised countries. But this does not mean that IP is not a tool that can be useful for developing countries. We are seeing more and more activities in developing countries. The fact of the matter is creativity is universal; developing countries have creative people as well as industrialised countries,” Onyeama told Intellectual Property Watch in an interview.

The big challenge for developing countries such as the Philippines is to create an environment to increase the use of IP for development. “Developing countries have to put in place appropriate infrastructure to help take advantage of the IP system,” he said, adding that needed infrastructure includes, among other things, technology transfer offices, appropriate regulations and policies and increased capacity.

And on an international stage such as Geneva, an additional challenge for developing countries is in the area of training negotiators. A native of another developing country, Nigeria, Onyeama said: “The challenge for us is to identify what our interests are, what our goals are and how we can negotiate to get the best out of the system. Everybody is fighting for themselves, and you can’t expect that the more advanced countries to spend their resources fighting for our interests. It is for us to fight for our own interests.”

At the end of the first day of the workshop, delegates were given a hypothetical case on an IP problem in a university setting, which may presented a challenge to solve in a single day the next day.

Before leaving the room, Cagayle of the Northern Negros State College said the first day was informative, but noted that finding business partners for university inventions remains daunting. Rommel Gador of the University of Southeastern Philippines in Davao City shared the same sentiment when asked, adding that another challenge is convincing the school management to implement the necessary changes outlined in the workshop.

Their reactions suggest that at the bottom of the IP pyramid, addressing the fundamental concerns is key in the successful diffusion of sophisticated international policies such as technology transfer.
On the next day, some delegates may find the problem in the assigned case easy to solve and some may not. But for most of them, there’s only one thing that they can be sure of – that tough tasks await them when they go back to their schools.

Maricel Estavillo may be reached at maricelestavillo@gmail.com.

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