Why the United States Should Care about the WIPO Election
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the “Major League Baseball Commission” of intellectual property (IP), including patents, trademarks, and industrial designs, is an underappreciated but very influential multilateral institution. WIPO gives international recognition to the property rights in IP and serves as the linchpin in the monetization of IP. A key part of WIPO is the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). The PCT provides for the international recognition of patent rights by all treaty members. However, like in a national patent, the secrecy of that information during examination is essential, or its monetary value is destroyed. As the role of IP continues to grow in international trade, WIPO will play an increasingly important role. As WIPO prepares to have a turnover in leadership, how it conducts itself, and how it protects business-sensitive information will be not only mission-critical but also critical for U.S. national interests. Therefore, now is the time for the United States to develop a strategy to ensure the best candidate for director general is elected.
Q1: What is WIPO?
A1: WIPO is a self-funded specialized agency of the United Nations. WIPO was designed to promote the protection of intellectual property and help resolve IP disputes across borders and act as a reference for IP information. WIPO achieves this goal by working with 192 member states to develop a global IP infrastructure and build international respect for IP.
Q2: When is the election of the next director general?
A2: The current term of the director general, Francis Gurry, will expire on September 30, 2020. Until December 30, 2019, the government of every member state can submit the name of a national as a candidate for nomination by the WIPO Coordination Committee. At an Extraordinary Session of the Coordination Committee on March 5 and 6, 2020, the committee nominates a candidate to the position of director general. The Coordination Committee first will narrow the pool down to three candidates with a straw poll. From there, the idea is to vote by consensus, but if that’s not possible, the candidates will be determined by formal voting, done by secret ballot and by a majority, which will narrow the candidate pool to two and then one, which ultimately determines the new director general.
WIPO consists of192 member states and over 350 accredited observer groups that consist of stakeholders and interest groups like NGOs, IGOs, and industry groups. Only 88 of the 192 member states [Appendix 1], which make up WIPO’s Coordination Committee, vote on the candidates for the next director general.
From there, on May 7 and 8, 2020, the candidate is appointed at a meeting with the General Assembly of WIPO, the Paris Union Assembly, and the Berne Union Assembly.
Q3: What happened in the last election?
A3: In the 2014 WIPO director general election, incumbent Francis Gurry (Australia) was elected to a second term. Gurry won his first term in 2008 by an extremely narrow margin, only winning 42-41 (by 83 members of the Coordination Committee out of 184 member states then), over a Brazilian candidate. At the time of his first election, Gurry was already a career member of WIPO, having worked as a deputy director general. In 2014, despite several controversies, Gurry was re-elected 46-37 (by 83 members of the Coordination Committee out of 187 member states then).
Q4: Who are the current candidates for director general?
A4: According to Intellectual Property Watch, there is an understanding that the new director should come from Latin America or the Asia-Pacific regions.
The official candidates nominated by their governments are as follows:
- Ms. Wang Binying (China) is the current deputy director general at WIPO and has worked in various roles since joining the International Bureau of WIPO in April 1992. She previously held roles as a senior program officer in the Bureau for Development Cooperation for Asia and the Pacific at WIPO.
- Mr. Daren Tang (Republic of Singapore) is the current chief executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore. He previously held positions as deputy chief executive (DCE) of IPOS.
- Mr. Marco Aleman (Colombia) is the current director of the Patent Law Division at WIPO and has held various roles there since 1999. He previously was the head of the Colombian Industrial Property Office and was an IP attorney.
- Mr. Kenichiro Natsume (Japan ) is the current senior director at the PCT Legal and International Affairs Department at WIPO and has worked in various roles there since 2012. He previously worked at the Japan Patent Office.
- Dr. Edward Kwakwa (Ghana) is the current legal counsel at WIPO. He previously worked at the Commission on Global Governance in Geneva, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the World Trade Organization.
- Ms. Saule Tlevlessova (Republic of Kazakhstan) is the current president of the Eurasian Patent Office of the Eurasian Patent Organization. She previously held several positions at WIPO, including program officer, and worked within the Republic of Kazakhstan.
The candidate submission period does not end until December 30, so new candidates could still enter the race.
Q5: Why does this matter to the United States?
A5: IP intensive industries represented 38 percent of total U.S. GDP in 2016. In the United States, intangible assets like IP make up 80 percent of the value of S&P 500 companies. IP property is integral to many sectors, including food security, health, and biodiversity, as well as our national security. Although WIPO does not directly issue patents, they do oversee the PCT, which helps applicants gain international patent protection and helps national patent offices with decisions about granting patents. The information about these patents is stored on international servers, which could pose an international security risk if ever hacked. Additionally, validating IP, which WIPO assists with, can make or break small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in both developed and developing countries, as valid IP can be used to secure loans, create products, and grow in the internet economy.
Q6: What happens if China (or another unfriendly nation) wins?
A6: China has a leading candidate to succeed to the post of director general of WIPO. China has a history of IP theft, with estimates that Chinese IP theft has cost the United States between $225 billion to $600 billion. At the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity Summit, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that China was committing “the greatest intellectual property theft in human history.” IP theft is one of the most contentious issues in the trade talks between the Trump administration and Beijing. It is not in the U.S. interest to have a Chinese national at the head of the international body that oversees the intellectual property, given their government’s lack of respect for IP as a whole.
Additionally, the post of director general at WIPO is much more powerful than that at most UN organizations. Past tenures show the WIPO director general’s decisions can have massive implications for a country or company’s advantages in innovation and the patent system. For example, when a U.S. patent holder, such as QUALCOMM or Cisco, seeks international protection, they submit paperwork to WIPO, which triggers an 18-month international search to see if the invention is patentable. During that time, the secrecy of the patent is lost. WIPO patents are now digitally filed in Switzerland but will eventually be housed in the cloud based in the United States. Under a new director general, these patents could be moved to a new location, such as Beijing. This has massive implications for the future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where countries are vying for technological supremacy. Given China’s history of IP theft, a Chinese director general storing the world’s patents in Beijing would be disastrous.
Q7: What can the United States do about this?
A7: The United States needs to become more involved with WIPO, both by ensuring the new director general shares U.S. beliefs and values and by remaining active in WIPO leadership. The United States can do this within the Coordination Committee and by having a U.S. national within a deputy director General role. Increased involvement in WIPO will keep the innovation playing field fair and promote international economic prosperity in developed and developing nations.
Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at CSIS. Rachel Abrams is an intern with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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