TCS Daily


Joke on the Water

By Craig Winneker - June 28, 2005 12:00 AM

GENEVA -- Lovely as it is, perched on the calm and pristine shores of Lac Léman at the point where the glacial lake narrows back into the fast-flowing Rhône River, Geneva is a singularly boring place. In fact, with its alphabet soup of international organizations, the city does not just exude dullness, it thrives on it.

This would be quaint (at best) or unimportant (at worst) if it weren't so potentially dangerous. It's easy to forget about or simply ignore the hundreds upon thousands of international diplo-crats who quietly populate the city's many assembly rooms and office corridors. Their world is designed to encourage un-interest in what is going on here. Let the experts get on with their complicated business - and let them enjoy high salaries and tax-free shopping while they're at it.

One of the least sexy of Geneva's many institutions is the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO for short (but not for long in francophone Geneva, where it is better to call it by its French acronym, OMPI). Despite its inherent air of bureaucracy and diplomatic tranquility, it's worth taking a look at this institution because it is at risk of being hijacked by an alliance of special interests who, though they promise to help the world's poorest nations, will hurt all nations, rich or poor, if they succeed.

Most of a recent three-day WIPO confab, fetchingly billed as an "Inter-Sessional Intergovernmental Meeting on a Development Agenda for WIPO," was devoted to a new proposal put forward by Brazil that will radically alter the intellectual property debate. The so-called Development Agenda would require that in the future WIPO view its duties through the prism of developing countries' needs.

At first blush, this sounds like a positive goal: everyone believes in helping the world's developing countries to take advantage of their natural talents. Unfortunately, for Brazil this means something else: a chance to justify the compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals (and the wholesale violation of other types of copyright and patent protection) in many of these countries in the name of ensuring "access" to knowledge.

In reality neither would happen. Instead Brazil, egged on by a group of non-governmental organizations whose agendas lean more towards supporting the violation of intellectual property rights-holders everywhere, aims to completely defang WIPO's role as a protector of IP. (Brazil, it is worth noting, is also a driving force in the global debate over agriculture subsidies, and some suspect it may use this WIPO agenda as a potential lever in some future pan-U.N. bid for increased influence.)

A distinguishing characteristic of these low-profile working group meetings is that NGOs on both sides of the issue get to have their say during the proceedings. Many do so eloquently and with a lot more emotion than the actual delegates - who are mostly civil servants spouting national niceties. But the pro-piracy groups seem to have a lot more success driving the agenda. The concerns they trumpet in various pamphlets often turn up as discussion items for meeting sessions. (An amusing sign of their persistent obliviousness to The Real World: one anti-IP campaigner was handing out T-shirts at the meeting proclaiming support for "A2K", or access to knowledge. The manufacturer's label on the shirts listed at least two forms of trademark.)

However, at this particular gathering, a side event organized by a pro-IP NGO, the International Chamber of Commerce, attracted an unusual amount of attention for the boldness of its premise: that an attack on IP rights is an attack on developing countries. It will hurt, rather than help, poor people.

On hand to argue this point were representatives from the developing world who expounded forcefully in favor of IP protection: a producer of traditional Argentine music (Argentina is allied with Brazil and India in attempting to hamstring WIPO); an Egyptian filmmaker; a Brazilian mining company owner; an Indian pharmaceutical company executive. All described how they were using IP protection to enrich not only themselves but their employees, their communities, their societies.

Also on hand was a man named Peter Bloch, who has had notable success in helping to alleviate poverty around the world. He does this not by reallocating wealth but by helping to create it - empowering people to earn money using the skills and unique resources they have at their disposal. In other words, he helps them to exploit their intellectual property.

He told of his experiences with coffee growers in Ethiopia and tribes in the Amazon who had been using medicinal plants with potential anti-retroviral benefits. Bloch, a type-A personality used to getting results in the field, lamented the Geneva mindset in which he'd suddenly found himself. Instead of aiming for results, the diplo-crats were doing what they do best - talking procedure.

"I was perplexed this morning," Bloch said of the WIPO meeting's first official session, "to hear a lengthy discussion about how something should be discussed." As a businessman, he was more used to fixing problems than talking about them.

This was apparently the last straw for one Nigerian attendee of the side event, whose remarks at the end of the meeting produced a miniature breakthrough. In his bright blue-and-gold robe and cap, Usman Sarki, a minister in the country's permanent representation to the UN and a delegate to the WIPO meeting, stood out from the largely grey-suited crowd. What he said made even more of an impression than his regal attire.

"I am hearing a lot of practical experience that will bring benefits to developing countries," he said, before suggesting that, rather than hold such discussions on the margins of WIPO meetings, perhaps the body should "devote an entire day to this discussion in its main session."

You could hear the air being let out of the one or two anti-IP campaigners who'd deigned to show up for the presentation. They were further disappointed when the WIPO deputy-director-general promised to take the suggestion under consideration.

Aside from seeking to shake up the protocol at such international meetings, Sarki also made a few arguments on the merits of the issue. He contested the idea that intellectual property rights somehow have been conjured up by rich nations as a way to keep poor countries down and prevent knowledge from spreading throughout the masses.

In African tribes, he noted, a kind of IP protection has been practiced for generations, with important knowledge on medicine or folklore passed along through incantations and secrets. There was, he insisted, an intersection of interests between rich and poor nations.

"Let's don't make this antagonistic," the Nigerian minister pleaded.

There were other positive flashes at the three-day meeting. A group of Middle Eastern countries, led by Bahrain, countered Brazil's proposal with a resolution of their own. This document called for a constructive approach that, instead of abandoning the IP system, would help poor countries get the most out of it. It quite rightly noted that most of the world has benefited from IP protection and it would be a shame to abandon it on principle.

Echoing the remarks of Egyptian filmmaker Mohammed Ramzy (who had declared during the ICC press conference that stealing "is a very, very big sin"), the Bahrain statement actually referred to the Koran in backing up its defense of IP rights. Put that in your nargileh pipe and smoke it.

Before the end of the three-day session it was clear the wind was coming out of the sails of some of the anti-IP nations. The two Indian delegates, who on the first day had spoken out in favor of the Brazil proposal, were recalled home by their government before the Inter-Sessional Intergovernmental Conference was even finished. Turns out New Delhi, which is hoping to make India as successful in biotechnology as it is with software, suddenly thinks intellectual property may not be so bad after all.

So the best thing to come from this meeting (another WIPO session on the Development Agenda is set for late July, so vigilance is still required in this fight) may be this: there are at least two fewer diplo-crats enjoying the dull but very good life on the shores of Lake Geneva.

It's a start. GENEVA -- Lovely as it is, perched on the calm and pristine shores of Lac Léman at the point where the glacial lake narrows back into the fast-flowing Rhône River, Geneva is a singularly boring place. In fact, with its alphabet soup of international organizations, the city does not just exude dullness, it thrives on it.

This would be quaint (at best) or unimportant (at worst) if it weren't so potentially dangerous. It's easy to forget about or simply ignore the hundreds upon thousands of international diplo-crats who quietly populate the city's many assembly rooms and office corridors. Their world is designed to encourage un-interest in what is going on here. Let the experts get on with their complicated business - and let them enjoy high salaries and tax-free shopping while they're at it.

One of the least sexy of Geneva's many institutions is the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO for short (but not for long in francophone Geneva, where it is better to call it by its French acronym, OMPI). Despite its inherent air of bureaucracy and diplomatic tranquility, it's worth taking a look at this institution because it is at risk of being hijacked by an alliance of special interests who, though they promise to help the world's poorest nations, will hurt all nations, rich or poor, if they succeed.

Most of a recent three-day WIPO confab, fetchingly billed as an "Inter-Sessional Intergovernmental Meeting on a Development Agenda for WIPO," was devoted to a new proposal put forward by Brazil that will radically alter the intellectual property debate. The so-called Development Agenda would require that in the future WIPO view its duties through the prism of developing countries' needs.

At first blush, this sounds like a positive goal: everyone believes in helping the world's developing countries to take advantage of their natural talents. Unfortunately, for Brazil this means something else: a chance to justify the compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals (and the wholesale violation of other types of copyright and patent protection) in many of these countries in the name of ensuring "access" to knowledge.

In reality neither would happen. Instead Brazil, egged on by a group of non-governmental organizations whose agendas lean more towards supporting the violation of intellectual property rights-holders everywhere, aims to completely defang WIPO's role as a protector of IP. (Brazil, it is worth noting, is also a driving force in the global debate over agriculture subsidies, and some suspect it may use this WIPO agenda as a potential lever in some future pan-U.N. bid for increased influence.)

A distinguishing characteristic of these low-profile working group meetings is that NGOs on both sides of the issue get to have their say during the proceedings. Many do so eloquently and with a lot more emotion than the actual delegates - who are mostly civil servants spouting national niceties. But the pro-piracy groups seem to have a lot more success driving the agenda. The concerns they trumpet in various pamphlets often turn up as discussion items for meeting sessions. (An amusing sign of their persistent obliviousness to The Real World: one anti-IP campaigner was handing out T-shirts at the meeting proclaiming support for "A2K", or access to knowledge. The manufacturer's label on the shirts listed at least two forms of trademark.)

However, at this particular gathering, a side event organized by a pro-IP NGO, the International Chamber of Commerce, attracted an unusual amount of attention for the boldness of its premise: that an attack on IP rights is an attack on developing countries. It will hurt, rather than help, poor people.

On hand to argue this point were representatives from the developing world who expounded forcefully in favor of IP protection: a producer of traditional Argentine music (Argentina is allied with Brazil and India in attempting to hamstring WIPO); an Egyptian filmmaker; a Brazilian mining company owner; an Indian pharmaceutical company executive. All described how they were using IP protection to enrich not only themselves but their employees, their communities, their societies.

Also on hand was a man named Peter Bloch, who has had notable success in helping to alleviate poverty around the world. He does this not by reallocating wealth but by helping to create it - empowering people to earn money using the skills and unique resources they have at their disposal. In other words, he helps them to exploit their intellectual property.

He told of his experiences with coffee growers in Ethiopia and tribes in the Amazon who had been using medicinal plants with potential anti-retroviral benefits. Bloch, a type-A personality used to getting results in the field, lamented the Geneva mindset in which he'd suddenly found himself. Instead of aiming for results, the diplo-crats were doing what they do best - talking procedure.

"I was perplexed this morning," Bloch said of the WIPO meeting's first official session, "to hear a lengthy discussion about how something should be discussed." As a businessman, he was more used to fixing problems than talking about them.

This was apparently the last straw for one Nigerian attendee of the side event, whose remarks at the end of the meeting produced a miniature breakthrough. In his bright blue-and-gold robe and cap, Usman Sarki, a minister in the country's permanent representation to the UN and a delegate to the WIPO meeting, stood out from the largely grey-suited crowd. What he said made even more of an impression than his regal attire.

"I am hearing a lot of practical experience that will bring benefits to developing countries," he said, before suggesting that, rather than hold such discussions on the margins of WIPO meetings, perhaps the body should "devote an entire day to this discussion in its main session."

You could hear the air being let out of the one or two anti-IP campaigners who'd deigned to show up for the presentation. They were further disappointed when the WIPO deputy-director-general promised to take the suggestion under consideration.

Aside from seeking to shake up the protocol at such international meetings, Sarki also made a few arguments on the merits of the issue. He contested the idea that intellectual property rights somehow have been conjured up by rich nations as a way to keep poor countries down and prevent knowledge from spreading throughout the masses.

In African tribes, he noted, a kind of IP protection has been practiced for generations, with important knowledge on medicine or folklore passed along through incantations and secrets. There was, he insisted, an intersection of interests between rich and poor nations.

"Let's don't make this antagonistic," the Nigerian minister pleaded.

There were other positive flashes at the three-day meeting. A group of Middle Eastern countries, led by Bahrain, countered Brazil's proposal with a resolution of their own. This document called for a constructive approach that, instead of abandoning the IP system, would help poor countries get the most out of it. It quite rightly noted that most of the world has benefited from IP protection and it would be a shame to abandon it on principle.

Echoing the remarks of Egyptian filmmaker Mohammed Ramzy (who had declared during the ICC press conference that stealing "is a very, very big sin"), the Bahrain statement actually referred to the Koran in backing up its defense of IP rights. Put that in your nargileh pipe and smoke it.

Before the end of the three-day session it was clear the wind was coming out of the sails of some of the anti-IP nations. The two Indian delegates, who on the first day had spoken out in favor of the Brazil proposal, were recalled home by their government before the Inter-Sessional Intergovernmental Conference was even finished. Turns out New Delhi, which is hoping to make India as successful in biotechnology as it is with software, suddenly thinks intellectual property may not be so bad after all.

So the best thing to come from this meeting (another WIPO session on the Development Agenda is set for late July, so vigilance is still required in this fight) may be this: there are at least two fewer diplo-crats enjoying the dull but very good life on the shores of Lake Geneva.

It's a start.

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