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Poverty reduction in developing countries will be hindered if intellectual property (IP) rights are expanded without taking into account the individual circumstances of poor nations, according to a report released today (12 September).

The Commission on Intellectual Property Rights — an independent international body set up by the British government last year to examine how IP rights could work better for developing countries — warns, for example, that poor people could face higher priced medicines and seeds unless their development needs are given adequate priority.

"Developed countries often proceed on the assumption that what is good for them is likely to be good for developing countries," said John Barton of Stanford University, chair of the Commission, which is made up of experts in science, law, ethics and economics from both developed and developing nations. "But in the case of developing countries, more and stronger protection is not necessarily better".

In recent years, global IP regimes — for example the use of patents — have been promoted as part of the process of globalisation, on the basis that such rules are essential if companies are to recoup their investment in developing products. But they have also been criticised as a major obstacle to improvements in public health and food security in poor regions.

The Commission warns that, by serving the interests of companies based primarily in the developed world, the IP system increases the cost of access to many products and technologies that developing countries need in areas such as health, agriculture, education and information technologies.

Its report, Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy, criticises the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) — principle institutions responsible for formulating international IP policy — for failing to fully take into account the complex links between IP protection and development.

"Although some value WIPO's advice highly, concerns have been expressed about whether its advice to developing countries fully takes account of the flexibilities in [the global intellectual property regime], and considers the most appropriate use of these in relation to a country's particular economic and social circumstances," it says.

In particular, the report recommends greater use of 'compulsory licensing' — the process by which countries can bypass the patent authorisation process if there are good reasons to do so — as one of a range of ways to obtain medicines at lower prices.

But Yo Takagi, senior director of WIPO's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Development, argues that WIPO's guidance to developing countries is sufficient, and that it is up to individual governments to decide what action to take. "There is no political barrier or stumbling block for certain countries to take up [compulsory licensing]," he says.

The Commission also recommends that the least developed countries should be allowed a longer period of time — until at least 2016 — to phase in provisions of TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), the WTO agreement that aims to standardise IP rules across the globe.

"TRIPS allows compulsory licensing and other means of promoting lower-priced generic drugs and increased competition — these are valuable tools for developing countries," says Barton. "But countries should have to apply TRIPS based on their own development milestones, not based on an arbitrary date."

Rather than adopt a standard international form of intellectual property protection, developing countries need to shape their IP laws to promote development generally, and keep in mind some of the negative aspects of overly generous IP protection, according to the report. And developed countries should pay more attention to reconciling their commercial self-interest with the need to reduce poverty in developing countries, it says.

For instance, the patenting of technologies needed to conduct research can provide an incentive for research, but it can also inhibit research that is needed to make use of those protected technologies. The report considers, for example, how the search for an effective malaria vaccine may be complicated by the large number of patents on the genetic material required in the research.

Gill Samuels, a Commissioner and senior director of science policy and scientific affairs (Europe) at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Ltd, points out that overall, "IP rights are only one factor among many in the development process". She adds: "Their importance should be recognised, but not overstated. Even the complete absence of IP rights would not solve the lack of sufficient resources for adequate health facilities, health workers and medicines for all in developing nations."

"The key message of the report is that the IP rules that are developed both nationally and internationally should take much greater account of the interests of developing countries," says Charles Clift, head of the Commission's Secretariat.

© SciDev.Net 2002

Link to Commission on Intellectual Property Rights' final report

Related article

Next WTO head open to 'forward-looking changes', 25 February 2002

See also:

Commission on Intellectual Property Rights
World Intellectual Property Organisation
World Trade Organisation