High-level dialogue marks 30 years of TRIPS Agreement

WTO members commemorated on 25 April the 30th anniversary of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), concluded in Marrakesh as part of the historic package of multilateral agreements that brought the WTO into existence in 1995. Speaking at a High-level Dialogue to mark the date, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the anniversary was an opportunity to engage in a forward-looking dialogue on how the WTO can best respond to current and future intellectual property needs and interests of its members.

In her opening remarks, DG Okonjo-Iweala stressed that — already in 1994 — the TRIPS Agreement articulated the compelling idea that the intellectual property (IP) system exists to promote the mutual interests of both producers and users of technological knowledge in a way that promotes social and economic welfare and that balances rights with obligations. “This idea resonates today as we consider the potential contribution of the IP system to the economic, environmental and social equity objectives set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” she said.

DG Okonjo-Iweala emphasized how this idea of balance in the TRIPS Agreement was vitally important during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1990s, “when access to antiretroviral treatments was literally the difference between life and death for millions of people, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa,” she noted. In response to this crisis, the 2001 Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health clarified that flexibilities were a core element of the TRIPS Agreement from the outset, and confirmed that governments could legitimately use compulsory licensing and other policies within the TRIPS framework to improve access to medicines.

Initially viewed as a concession by developing economies, DG Okonjo-Iweala emphasized that the TRIPS Agreement has evolved into a practical tool for development. Developing economies have increasingly tailored TRIPS Agreement implementation to their domestic needs, leveraging IP rights for technology transfer and economic growth. However, she noted that controversy persists, such as debates over TRIPS’ role in addressing global inequities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DG Okonjo-Iweala called for ongoing dialogue on TRIPS within the wider trade policy and development landscape. She encouraged members to learn from past experiences to inform future collaboration and cooperation. She also advocated an inclusive conversation to explore diverse policy options within TRIPS, fostering clarity and understanding among WTO members particularly in times of international public health crises.

“The Decision on the TRIPS Agreement reached by consensus at the 12th Ministerial Conference (in June 2022) was another step in the right direction. It clarified the options with respect to some of the most immediate concerns voiced by members in relation to access to vaccines. Like the Doha Declaration two decades earlier, the MC12 Decision was a reminder of the value, indeed the necessity, of greater clarity and understanding about the options that members have,” she said.

DG Okonjo-Iweaka encouraged members to engage in a dialogue to shape a forward-looking agenda for the international IP system, one that strengthens its linkages with the innovation ecosystem, the creative industries, and the diffusion and uptake of technologies that will be critical for sustainable development.

WIPO Director General Daren Tang also delivered opening remarks. He highlighted the significance of multilateralism, international dialogue and collaboration in achieving milestones such as this 30th anniversary. DG Tang emphasized humanity’s long history of invention and creativity, noting the importance of IP systems in connecting ideas with society and the market.

The establishment of international IP treaties, such as the Paris and Berne Conventions, laid the foundation for a global IP framework. “And of course, the TRIPS Agreement was groundbreaking because it was the first to directly connect the world of IP with that of trade and investment. This again ushered in a new chapter in the development of the global IP system,” he noted.

DG Tang stressed that the global IP landscape has transformed significantly over the past three decades, with cross-border IP payments reaching nearly a trillion dollars. Traditional IP powerhouses have been joined by emerging economies, reflecting a more diversified IP ecosystem, he said. In this regard, he underlined the recognition of the importance of innovation, technology and entrepreneurship in driving growth, particularly in regions like Asia and Africa.

While acknowledging the need for continuous improvement in agreements like TRIPS, he praised the role of the Agreement in supporting innovation and incentivizing creativity. He also reiterated WIPO’s commitment to continue working with the WTO Secretariat and members to further enhance the global IP framework for the benefit of all stakeholders.

The keynote speech was delivered by WTO Deputy Director-General Johanna Hill, who outlined three key themes concerning the TRIPS Agreement and its future relevance. Firstly she noted that there has been a transition in perception, as the Agreement was initially viewed from the perspective of the North-South dichotomy and has transformed now into a balanced multilateral platform.

Secondly, she indicated that implementing the TRIPS Agreement has matured beyond mere legal compliance to a nuanced understanding that allows for tailored policy and legal development according to domestic needs. In this context, developing economies have shown significant agency in defining and asserting their interests within the framework of the TRIPS Agreement.

Finally, she pointed to the evolution of IP and trade against a background of a technological revolution, notably with the emergence of the internet and the digital economy. TRIPS negotiations, initially focused on the value of IP in traded goods, have expanded to encompass broader digital and intangible goods, reflecting a profound shift in the global IP landscape.

The challenge ahead, DDG Hill added, is how to continue delivering in a radically transformed technological, economic and geopolitical environment, even if the bedrock principles of a balanced and effective IP system remain the same.

“I believe we have a common responsibility and an exciting opportunity to reflect on the practical lessons from the TRIPS implementation over the past three decades. I think we also have to apply these lessons in a positive collaborative way to bring about the improvements in social and economic welfare that TRIPS calls for. The WTO Secretariat team stands ready to support these efforts, just as it has steadfastly done for the past three decades,” she said.

Antony Taubman, Director of the WTO’s Intellectual Property, Government Procurement and Competition Division, provided an overview of the TRIPS Agreement from the Secretariat’s perspective. He noted the over 6,000 legislative notifications provided by members in the last 30 years on their distinct approaches to implementing TRIPS principles. He encouraged members to use them as a practical policy resource and valuable source of information for policymakers. He also highlighted the value of discussions on IP matters in the Trade Policy Review mechanism.

In a panel discussion moderated by the Chair of the Council for TRIPS, Ambassador Pimchanok Pitfield of Thailand, member representatives shared their perspectives on TRIPS implementation and the operation of the Council. They also reflected on future areas of work for members in the TRIPS context.

In a final panel discussion chaired by Mr Taubman, representatives from international organizations, non-governmental organizations, academia and the private sector discussed the impact of the TRIPS Agreement and the future challenges for IP policy at a time of dramatic technological change.

The webcast of the event can be watched here.

More information here.

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