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Options for the development of the international patent system.

The focus of this topic is the harmonization and improvement of the procedures and practices whereby the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) oversees the granting of patents in an international context. The concerns and purposes surrounding the granting of patents have changed drastically since the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property (1883) and the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (1886), the two treaties which serve as the foundations for the protection of intellectual property and the WIPO. These acts helped to establish the protection of ideas of citizens of developed nations from infringement and plagiarism. Both of these treaties pre-date the onset of globalization and its consequent introduction of third-world countries and economies into the international arena of commerce.

These treaties also pre-date the information age and the concerns the internet has brought to the forefront, concerns such as the increasing simplicity and inexpensive means by which people can illegally reproduce ideas (literature, music, etc.). This is not to say that there has not been further development on these issues since the aforementioned treaties of the late 19th century, but there is still much work to be done to bring the law up to speed with technology. The WIPO, perhaps more so than any other committee of the United Nations, deals constantly with the expediency of changing technology.

The WIPO convened from March 25-27, 2002 in order to discuss many of the current important issues concerning intellectual property and the restructuring of the international patent system. One of the most crucial issues immediately facing WIPO is the distribution of essential medicines to patients in developing countries. In recent years, the African HIV/AIDS epidemic has brought this issue to the forefront. Ellen t’ Hoen, coordinator of the globalization program at the French organization Medicins Sans Frontieres (Medicine Without Borders), repeated the findings of the World Health Organization (WHO), which show that one-third of the world’s population does not have access to essential medicines. In the impoverished areas of Africa and Asia, that figure falls to less 50% of the population. She also reported that while 75% of the world live in developing nations, this portion of the world’s population accounts for a mere 8% of all pharmaceutical sales. The reasons for this are many and varied, yet they are all reducible to the fact that there is a profound economic imbalance between the developed countries in which these drugs are researched and patented and the developing countries that need these drugs the most. Pharmaceutical patents, she argued, have traditionally upheld the rights of the corporations holding the patents but have not stimulated needed research or any efforts at accommodating the economic situations of those in dire need of essential medicines.

For the purposes of this meeting, the delegates must consider whether or not a restructuring of the current patent system will assist in the process of widening the distribution of these essential medicines. Currently, the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) oversees patents granted on both national and regional levels. Regional patents apply to all participating countries in a specific geographical region, and it is not at the discretion of the patent holder to limit the number of countries in a region to which its patent applies. Delegates must discuss the possible expansion into developing countries of the use of the PCT system. Countries must decide whether or not they agree with Ms. Hoen’s argument that the current patent system protects patent holders at the expense of the innate human right of preserving one’s health. If so, delegates must debate possible means of encouraging pharmaceutical companies to research and develop essential medicines and to make these medicines available to those who need them.

Another option for reforming the international patent system is the consideration is establishing a system in which patents could be granted in an internationally supported procedure. Delegates must consider whether or not an international patent could help to improve and simplify the process of patent-granting as well as whether or not such a system would address concerns such as those of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Whereas the debate over pharmaceutical patents involves large, wealthy corporations, this is not the only group in the economic hierarchy that holds patents. Small to medium size businesses as well as individuals and many groups from developing countries also petition for patents only to find that the costs of protection are too much. Delegates must debate whether or not the WIPO can design procedures by which less lucrative groups in the economic sector can procure patent protection.

The restructuring debate also calls to question many bureaucratic issues relating to the functioning of the WIPO itself and to its interaction with individual patent offices. Delegates should investigate possible means by which the WIPO can help to expedite the long, expensive, and comprehensive process of applying for patents. One possibility would be to establish an international database so that review boards could search for results from foreign patent offices. Delegates should also decide whether or not sharing resources among different patent offices would help to streamline costs and avoid the duplication of work.

These are only some of the topics that delegates should consider during debate and when drafting resolutions. Those interested can find a more comprehensive list of issues and possible solutions at the two webpages listed below.

In reading this background paper, the reader should gain some sense both of the variety of issues present in the realm of intellectual property protection as well as with the two primary concerns and purposes of the WIPO: investigating the socio-economic concerns of the patent-granting process and maintaining and reworking the process according to the development of technology. Delegates should remember these two concerns as they debate and develop legislation for the issues discussed above. If the delegation does not debate and make progress on these issues, the international community might begin to lose faith in the WIPO as a mediating organization, and the condition of many of the people negatively affected by the problems that the WIPO has the power to change will not improve.

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