An independent commission appointed by the British government has proposed weaker intellectual property (IP) laws in developing countries in hopes of fostering innovation. The commission's report, released today, also criticizes the World Trade Organization's agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights (TRIPS), which in 1995 delineated minimum global standards for IP laws.
Patents are a two-edged sword for less-developed countries trying to close the technology gap with industrialized nations, according to the commissioners. While they give inventors the opportunity to profit from the fruits of their intellectual achievements, they can also discourage other researchers from pursuing similar areas if the patent protection is too broad. In addition, developing countries can ill afford to pay fees on patents, both domestic and foreign, that would help them expand their technological base. "We've recommended that patents aren't necessarily a good idea for many developing countries," says Charles Clift, a London economist and head of the secretariat that managed the six-member Commission on Intellectual Property Rights.
The commissioners acknowledge that a dearth of IP regulations in the least developed countries forced them to guess the impact of U.S. or European-type IP laws on a country's technological development. But they conclude that a single IP system cannot serve the diversity of developing countries--one goal of TRIPS. "Don't force-feed stringent IP [rights] laws to poor countries that do not have the inherent capacity to implement them," says commissioner Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, a polymer engineer and director–general of India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.
But others express reservations. Jeffrey Kushan, a patent attorney at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP in Washington, D.C., questions the commission's conclusions and notes that raising IP standards has historically promoted international competition and investment. "Obviously, every country's got its own special criteria," says Lila Feisee, IP director at BIO, an industry group in Washington, D.C. "But we push very hard to try and harmonize the patent laws of different countries."
The report will be presented next week to officials from the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization. The commissioners hope that their ideas will be incorporated into TRIPS, which continues to undergo revisions, or other international agreements.