Will the West Reject a "Development Agenda"?

Can the world’s poorest countries improve their lot by adopting the intellectual property (IP) standards of the West? The West insists that’s how countries develop themselves economically, technologically and socially. Yet the behavior of the United States Government and major multinationals suggests a distinct lack of confidence in their claim. Not only is the West trying to stifle an open debate of this question at the World Intellectual Property Organization, it is studiously ignoring the explosion of open-knowledge alternatives that some of the West’s own multinationals are embracing.

The root problem is that some bedrock premises of international IP policy are now under siege by new types of knowledge commons. Open source software, open standards for technology, open access archives for publicly funded research, open research databases like the Human Genome Project, and many other collaborative systems are proving more efficient and socially beneficial than the West’s traditional system of strict IP rules. Such is the power of sharing knowledge in a networked global environment.

Allowing greater access to knowledge (by relaxing strict IP protection) would surely enhance the ability of poor nations to develop their own economic capacity and address urgent social, health and educational needs. It would just as surely weaken the West’s dominance of global markets and reduce corporate profits, at least in the short term.

What’s different now is that developing nations are finding new courage and resourcefulness. They are banding together in challenging the neoliberal orthodoxy that free trade and strict IP will necessarily help them. Led by Argentina and Brazil, national governments are starting to confront the West’s IP agenda with morally powerful claims to a “ development agenda.” Dozens of nations (now including Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Cuba and others) have joined the campaign to win institutional reforms within WIPO to make it more responsive to the needs of development, consumer protection, public health and education.

This effort is subversive because it is demanding (in the words of a statement issued by Friends of Development) that “intellectual property should be regarded not as an end in itself, but as a means for promoting the public interest, innovation, and access to science, technology and the promotion of diverse national creative industries – in order to ensure material progress and welfare in the long run.”

It’s the height of irony – if not hypocrisy – that there is growing debate within the United State and Europe about the actual value of strict IP rules even as they press poor countries to adopt the West’s legal regime. Jamie Love of the Consumer Project on Technology writes in the Financial Times:

Big successful companies like Cisco are alarmed at patent thickets on software and computing technologies and IBM is undergoing a profound shift in the way it thinks about intellectual property resources, which it now seeks to share.

Why such intransigence in the West about relaxing IP rules in order to help the poorest, most needy nations develop? Perhaps because in this time of American triumphalism, the West thinks it can prevail through sheer force. This is apparently the plan at WIPO, which has refused even to allow an open debate on the issue. WIPO is not letting many accredited non-governmental groups participate in a set of April 11-13 meetings that will discuss the IP and development.

Such strong-arm tactics could backfire. One developing nation official has warned: “If developing countries get the sense that an attempt is being made to ‘gang up’ on them, they will be tempted to revive the G-77 (a group of more than 100 developing countries that coordinates on positions) in WIPO. Today, WIPO is the only U.N. forum in Geneva where the G-77 is not active – it has been dormant since the late 1980s.”

It is disturbing to see WIPO and the West resist the tide of history when such urgent problems in the developing world need immediate attention – and the West’s help.

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