Intellectual Property Rights Debate Heating Up

UCLA conference participants challenge conventional wisdom on intellectual property rights and innovation.

This article was first published in AsiaMedia.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Los Angeles --- "One size fits all" might not be the best approach to dealing with intellectual property issues. There could be a point at which protection of intellectual property harms innovation. China might be seeking to increase its influence in shaping the intellectual property rights debate.

These are a few ideas that came out of a conference on intellectual property and developing countries held at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) this week. Some speakers said that the purpose of a development agenda within the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which the conference centered on, was not to unravel the Western model of intellectual property rights protection but rather to broaden its focus to take into account the concerns of developing countries.

Brazil, along with Argentina, led an effort by developing countries from 2004 for the establishment within WIPO of what was dubbed the "Development Agenda."

"Countries have to develop an intellectual property rights strategy appropriate to their development," said Henrique Choer Moraes, a conference participant from the Brazil Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We need a balance between rights and obligations."

One issue that the conference focused on was the relationship between protection of intellectual property (which includes such things as copyrights, trademarks and patents) and economic development, innovation and foreign direct investment. Some at the conference challenged the notion that the protection of intellectual property rights fosters a country's development and ability to innovate and attract foreign investment.

Moraes said the idea of a causal link between strong enforcement of intellectual property rights and foreign direct investment was questionable. Yi Qian, a professor at Northwestern University, said that "national pharmaceutical patent implementation accelerates innovation" in countries with high development and education levels and relative economic freedom, but she added that there "appears to be an optimal level of intellectual property protection above which innovation is harmed."

Hong Xue, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law, said that at China's current stage of development, strong intellectual property rights protection is a "double-edged sword." Strong protections have pushed some companies, such as manufacturers that use patents for DVD technology, out of the market because of high costs. But for other companies, those which are producers of intellectual property, strong protections are a good thing. As China moves from copy to creation, imitation to innovation, strengthening protections will have a stimulating effect, she said.

Some participants said that intellectual property rights are important for innovation but are not the only important factor. Having a good infrastructure and an enabling environment are also critical.

A WIPO committee dealing with the "Development Agenda" will meet in June to try to come to agreement about a final list of proposals to present to the U.N. General Assembly in September for action.

Some conference participants said that China has been keeping a very low profile during the talks, but Xue disagreed. China heads with Bangladesh one of WIPO's six "cluster groups" around which the proposals are organized, she said. Outside of WIPO, China has also shown initiative by launching national strategies on intellectual property rights. It  came up with something called Certificates of IiPR which confer upon products independent IPR (intellectual property rights) status, she said.

India has been more active in the discussions than China, said Pushpendra Rai, head of the Intellectual Property and Economic Division in WIPO, in "balancing concerns of developing countries and concerns of developed countries."

The United States is constructively engaged in discussions, said Paul Salmon, Senior Counsel, Office of International Relations, United States Patent and Trademark Office. But he added, "An imposed agenda will not work. We need proposals supported by all."

The WIPO Development Agenda is reminiscent of past initiatives by developing countries such as the call for a New International Economic Order in the 1970s and the push for a New International Information Order in the 1980s, both of which were triggered by perceptions of injustices within the international system. Attention is also being focused on the needs of the developing countries now through the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals and the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Ann C. Rosenfield Symposium Fund, UCLA School of Law and UCLA Anderson CIBER Center for International Business Education and Research.

Published: Tuesday, March 13, 2007