The decision of member-countries of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), acting through its Provisional Committee, to refer the issue of a Development Agenda for this United Nations-affiliated body to its General Assembly in September marks a new stage in the global debate on the role of intellectual property. The decision runs parallel to happenings at the GATT/WTO, where the nearly six-decade-old mechanism has been forced to add a development dimension to the current round of trade negotiations since the Qatar ministerial meeting. This is not surprising because intellectual property rights (IPRs) are very much part of a broader system commonly identified as the market economy functioning within a multi-party parliamentary democratic setup, just as free trade and freedom of enterprise are. It was only two years ago that Brazil and Argentina came out with an initial proposal that WIPO should look beyond its traditional standard-setting activities in respect of IPRs and reflect the development needs of the developing and the least developed countries (LDCs). The duo was later supported by 12 other developing countries (India is not one of them) and together they have submitted a total of 111 proposals for consideration under a possible action framework for a development agenda. As could be expected, demands that have arisen in the wake of the debate within WIPO's internal committees on the new initiative include: "balancing of public interest and rights of owners of IP"; combating the tendency towards a "one-size-fits-all" approach in standard-setting for patents, trade marks, copyright etc.; sovereign space for developing countries and LDCs to implement IPR laws in tune with their stage of development; and a greater role for non-government organisations and activist groups in WIPO's consultation process.
Though there is no voice within the organisation against the adoption of a development agenda, serious differences on the very concept, priorities and roadmaps are bound to arise in taking the proposal forward. Nevertheless, some facts need to be acknowledged as a starting point. First, WIPO (like the WTO) is an organisation of 183 member-countries and reflects divergences and inequalities in their political-economic strengths. Secondly, in historical terms, intellectual property rights have played a progressive role in making available to societies as a whole state-of-the art advances in every field, in consideration of a limited monopoly or royalty for creators and inventors (and, increasingly, for corporations, universities and publishers, to whom the rights are assigned by the creators). Thirdly, there is a substantial difference between the limited monopoly that is given to creators/assignees of any IP to encourage innovation and the market monopoly that entities like big corporations enjoy, and a clear distinction needs to be maintained between the two.