As this article posts we are midway through the latest meeting of World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) delegates who are trying to protect “traditional knowledge” as it pertains to intellectual property. The 24th session of WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) is taking place from the 22nd to the 26th of April 2013.
The purpose of this meeting is to hammer out the text that of what delegates hope will be an international document ratified around the globe to protect traditional knowledge. However, delegates from different countries cannot yet agree on the language of the instrument and much work remains.
It should perhaps not be surprising that developing countries in the venture are typically advocating for an international instrument which would be legal binding for signatories, while developed countries are pushing for a less forceful agreement. This latter arrangement would essentially allow companies in developed countries to continue to run roughshod over traditional knowledge sources in the quest for intellectual property without any real consequences.
At the time of this writing the delegates have three more days to come to consensus on a number of central issues. The ultimate goal of the IGC for this week is to produce a draft that can be sent to the WIPO General Assembly for the autumn session. The IGC was given four core topic areas for focus in this draft by WIPO (although they were not limited to these four): which subject matter should be protected by the document, who would be the beneficiaries of the protection, what would the scope of the protection be, and how would the protection be limited/what exceptions would be carved out.
The IGC itself has three focus areas, one of which—genetic resources—was already the focus of the February 2013 work session. The current session is devoted to the traditional knowledge focus area as mentioned, and the next session in July 2013 will be devoted to the third focus area: traditional cultural expressions. This timetable should allow IGC to make complete recommendations in time for September’s General Assembly.
You might wonder why all of this work is being done by WIPO rather than, say, the United Nations. Furthermore, you might wonder if, because it is being promulgated by WIPO rather than the UN, this instrument will have even less effect than a UN instrument might. As it turns out, WIPO being at this particular wheel may be a good thing.
WIPO is made up only of people who work in IP. There aren’t politicians involved. The only agenda is “the promotion of intellectual property throughout the world through cooperation among States,” and that’s it. This means that WIPO isn’t afraid to take stands on issues that they find to be dangerous or contrary to their mission, such as criticizing governments for giving dangerous technology to North Korea or sanctions preventing computers from going to Iran. And with 185 member states compared to the UN’s 192, WIPO actually has a very similar representative composition.
WIPO also has much deeper pockets than the UN. This means that it has the chops as well as the will to get things done without the economic aftertaste so common in politics. Even the UN isn’t immune. And given that WIPO has more pull within the IP industry itself thanks to the importance of its members, WIPO is probably the organization for the job, assuming consensus can be reached without excessive bullying by developed states.