Intellectual Property and the North-South Divide

Becky Hogge in openDemocracy:

Almost two years ago, openDemocracy ran an interview with Cory Doctorow, then an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) activist, entitled “Democracy and Dissent at the World Intellectual Property Organisation”. The article exposed a United Nations organisation – as Geneva-based WIPO is – straining to accommodate a different point of view: that stronger and stronger patents, trademarks and copyright-law protection for ideas and their expression do not necessarily lead to the best outcomes for human development. Doctorow spoke of crude attempts to subvert the EFF and its allies’ message, and of dirty tactics at the negotiating table.

Conducting the interview, I held out little hope for WIPO. That it was even part of the UN seemed an anomaly. Mainly funded by the international registration of patents and trademarks, how could it ever be persuaded to take a second look at arguments which question the link between strong intellectual property (IP) protection and development?

WIPO was formed in the late 1960s, replacing the bureau that administered the Paris Convention (on patents) and the Berne Convention (on copyright). These conventions date back to the late nineteenth century, when – according to the WIPO website – “the need for international protection of intellectual property became evident [as] foreign exhibitors refused to attend the International Exhibition of Inventions in Vienna in 1873 because they were afraid their ideas would be stolen and exploited commercially in other countries.”