International Intellectual Property Protection
Creative works, such as medicines, trademarks, and art, are vital to a thriving modern economy. To bolster their economies, governments often provide protections for intellectual property (IP), which rewards creators or owners of creative works for producing these works. The Paris and Berne Conventions of the late 19th century form the foundation for international IP protection in the 21st century. The Berne Convention established an international organization that oversees international treaties governing IP protection. This organization, now known as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), became a specialized agency of the United Nations in 1974. In 1995, all members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) signed the TRIPS Agreement, the most comprehensive treaty to provide strong protections for IP rights. The TRIPS Agreement attempts to set a fair playing field for companies operating across national borders, and parties allegedly in breach of the agreement must go before the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body. The WIPO Copyright Treaty, which took effect in 2002, extends IP protections to digital works and forbids circumventing Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) attempts to go further, seeking to harmonize IP rights enforcement standards. Although signed in 2011, ACTA has not gone into effect, in part because protests alleged ACTA would stymy free speech, undermine internet users’ privacy, and limit access to generic medicines. More recent multilateral treaties, such as TPP and TTIP, have advanced provisions similar to those in ACTA.
Emerging technologies and the political discourse surrounding IP continually challenge the current approach to IP protection. Although the U.S. Supreme Court decided naturally-occurring genetic sequences are not patentable in the US, the court’s ruling allows DNA manipulated in a lab to be patented. Similar, often less-restrictive rulings have appeared in other jurisdictions, such as Australia, Canada, Europe, and Japan, and no treaty currently governs IP protection for artificial genes. Meanwhile, movements to democratize information argue against restricting access to creative works, such as when digital libraries use paywalls. Some open access proponents contend strong IP protections effectively allow only well-established actors in commerce and academia to use creative works, preventing other actors from discovering innovative uses for them. In addition, recent lawsuits, such as those between Samsung and Apple Inc., portend a future wherein businesses disingenuously use IP protections to reduce competing firms’ market share. Lastly, many businesses based in developed countries have decried the use of their creative works without proper licensing in developing countries. For instance, developing countries have occasionally allowed domestic firms to produce and sell more affordable, albeit unlicensed generic drugs. Many large U.S.-based technology companies have increasingly accused the People’s Republic of China of allowing domestic firms to steal foreign IP.
This body must determine the most appropriate way to protect IP going forward. Possible approaches include pursuing comprehensive treaties that harmonize IP rights enforcement standards or narrower treaties that address certain types of IP. Alternatively, this body may consider focusing on more strictly enforcing existing IP protections, settling on the status quo, or loosening existing IP protections.