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06 Apr 2020
BY André J Maré

WIPO leadership: the fox guarding the henhouse

A fierce fight for the leadership of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (”WIPO”) reflects an ever-growing recognition of the importance of IP.

The US has seemingly secured a major victory in its quest to prevent a Chinese official from becoming the director general of WIPO. It has achieved this by backing a candidate from Singapore, Daren Tang, the head of the Singapore Intellectual Property Office. Tang was up against China’s Wang Binying, a WIPO deputy director and a former Beijing trade official. It’s worth noting that, although Tang was a clear winner in the second round of voting, his nomination still needs to be confirmed.

A report in the Financial Times on 4 March 2020 headed  “US-backed candidate nominated to lead UN body after anti-China campaign” gives some interesting background. It talks of a “US campaign”, one that was aimed at ensuring that a Chinese official would not be in charge of a body that has trove of 250 000 patents”. A campaign that was part of wider efforts to curb Beijing’s influence at the UN.”  

The report quotes a former US deputy director of WIPO, who said that appointing the Chinese candidate would mean that China could access “the secrets of the world’s future technology before anyone else.”  According to this source, a WIPO director general would probably be able to overcome technical safeguards to gain access to WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty, where an average of 250 000 patents from more than 153 participating states are kept for around 18 months before approval.” The report further says that a 2017 enquiry established that “Chinese actors were responsible for “losses of US intellectual property worth between USD225-billion and USD600-billion annually.”

In more general terms, the report goes on to claim that China’s attempt to get one of their own at the head of WIPO is part of an ongoing campaign at reshaping the international system to accommodate its political and economic interests.”  As for the US opposition, this was part of a general trend to push back on China’s influence over international bodies – China already heads international bodies responsible for food and agriculture, industrial development, international telecoms and civil aviation. For context, no other permanent members of the UN Security Council head more than one of the UN’s 15 agencies.

The US has, of course, managed to make its influence felt in a big way at another Geneva-based international body, the World Trade Organisation. As a result of these efforts, that body is almost paralysed due to the fact that the appellate body can’t function.

A second report that appeared in the publication The Hill on 9 March 2020, entitled, “Trump administration wins big with WIPO election, made this colourful claim about the contest for director general: When one registers a patent in the United States, that patent is also sent to WIPO in Geneva. Given China’s reputation for stealing intellectual property, having a Chinese Director General of WIPO would have been like having the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.

IP lawyers will have their own views on whether the US position in this matter is justified. What we will say is that this dispute illustrates a growing recognition of the importance of IP. Donald Trump is probably more aware of IP than most world leaders. As we have reported in the past, his business empire has a huge portfolio of trade mark registrations, including many in China. He has certainly cited IP violations by China as a justification for trade sanctions. On the other hand, he sometimes shows a complete disregard for the IP of others, for example by playing songs at his rallies without authorisation from the copyright holders.

IP remains one of the most important asset classes. It stimulates inventiveness and creativity through patents, registered designs and copyright, allowing inventive and creative people to secure limited monopolies. It further encourages competition and it enables business models like IP licensing and tax efficient inter-company flows of revenue. Although much of the IP focus these days is on tech, IP even makes provision for old school, through areas such as traditional knowledge systems and geographical indications. But what is changing is the recognition – people are undoubtedly far more aware of IP than ever before.

André J Maré
Executive | IP
+27 82 440 1517