Consumer Groups Press WIPO to Shift Focus from IP Rights to Human Rights

Washington Internet Daily
Sept 14, 2004

GENEVA -- The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) found itself on the defensive today as speakers at the Transatlantic Consumer Dialog (TACD) here debated its future. Faced with accusations that the organization -- which became part of the United Nations in 1974 -- has sided with intellectual property (IP) rights to the exclusion of human rights, several WIPO officials said they’re listening to the increasing calls for a more balanced approach. And while some speakers agreed WIPO is making an effort to address their concerns, they said any changes so far amount to little. WIPO’s stated mission is to promote IP. But as a U.N. agency, its responsibility is to take appropriate action to promote intellectual creativity not IP, said Sisule Musungu, head of the Kenyan South Centre’s program on international trade & development. WIPO doesn’t appear to act according to its U.N. mandate, but according to its original mission to foster IP, he said.

The stated mission is both “right and good” but it has failed, said Stanford U. law prof. Lawrence Lessig. If IP promotion were a campaign and WIPO its campaign manager, he said, it would lose. IP is more contested and criticized today than at any time before, he said, because: (1) There’s too much influence by IP “maximalists,” special interests that push for IP term extensions, for instance, to the detriment of others’ rights. (2) We’re obsessed with the conception of IP as it was -- automatic and longlived -- when technology has fundamentally changed the use of creative works. (3) Lawyers’ characterization of IP as a “religion,” not an economic issue. What’s needed, he said, is substantial reform that would require every regulation to be tested under the principle of economic efficiency, he said. Properly balanced, IP promotes the public good, Lessig said. But, whether by WIPO’s fault or not, IP doesn’t do that, and is now considered a tool of the rich to impose their power on the poor.

WIPO’s dossier is “dodgy,” said John Sulston, founding dir. of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (U.K.). Its mission statement mistakenly equates “works of the human spirit” with IP, he said. The past 25 years, the funding of discovery has been directly tied to its application, and WIPO has been required to follow the agenda of those who “perverted the course of scientific discovery.” Instead, Sulston said, its mission should be as a democratic govt. balancing everyone’s interests.

A European Commission (EC) official backed WIPO, saying its primary mission is as a lawmaking body in the field of copyright protection. There is “unfinished business” in WIPO’s digital agenda, including the issues of protection for broadcasters and the need for IP rights for sui generis databases, said Rogier Wezenbeek, of the Internal Market directorate-gen. Copyright & neighboring rights unit. Moreover, he said, there’s been no new copyright treaty since 1976. With a growing number of international organizations discussing copyright, it’s of “prime importance” that WIPO’s expertise remain in the lead, he said.

WIPO officials stressed they’re heeding calls for change. There’s “diversity and inclusiveness” in the activities within WIPO, said Anthony Taubman, head of the traditional knowledge div. Whatever one’s view of WIPO, he said, it’s engaged in a wider debate on IP than many believe. Taubman disputed critics who say WIPO isn’t listening, citing its 6-year effort to address issues surrounding protection of traditional knowledge. Despite activities that have created the foundation for a practical debate on the need to protect such knowledge, and its raising the political status of the issues, he said, WIPO has been accused on being too theoretical and academic and “all talk and no action.” That’s not the WIPO he knows, Taubman said. And in a later panel on WIPO and the Information Society, Richard Owens, dir.-copyright, e-commerce, technology & management div., said much of what has been written about the TACD conference isn’t accurate. “We’re in complete receiver mode,” Owens said. Just because WIPO isn’t speaking out on issues doesn’t mean it’s not thinking about them, he said. WIPO is in the early stages of its new relationship with civil society -- consumer, human rights and other groups -- and its agenda is driven by the concerns of its member states, some of which are developing countries. “We’re open and we’re ready for change,” Owens said.

WIPO deserves an “A” for the spirit in which it worked with the TACD on this week’s conference, said James Love, Consumer Project on Technology Exec. Dir., at a news briefing. WIPO knows it has to “wean itself away” from merely protecting rights-owners, he said. To its credit, Love said, it deserves high marks for opening its doors to nongovernmental organizations, and for its willingness to engage in TACD’s issues.

But Brazil and Argentina recently threw down the gauntlet over WIPO’s mission, Love said. The countries have proposed that WIPO set a “development agenda” and has asked that member states consider it at their assemblies in 2 weeks. The big questions are whether the Secretariat will permit the proposal to be debated as a separate agenda item, and whether the U.S. and EU will oppose it, he said. “We’re in a fight about what this UN agency is all about,” Love said -- Dugie Standeford

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