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The WIPO and North Korea Matter

IPI is an accredited observer organization with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, and has been for about eight years. During those eight years I’ve travelled to over two dozen WIPO meetings on various topics related to intellectual property protection. I’ve seen the dynamic at WIPO, and in particular I’ve seen how the interests of the United States and western developed economies are at stake, in terms of making sure that the intellectual property of American companies is protected, and particularly in making sure that the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system is executed so that companies have a streamlined process for filing patents internationally.

Make no mistake: The U.S. economy, dependent as it is on innovation, benefits from a strong and functioning WIPO. However, at WIPO, the U.S. economy is constantly under attack by IP skeptic ideologues and by developing countries who seek to use IP issues as leverage in other negotiations.

The tendency, as any observer of the UN must be aware, is for the heads of UN agencies to come from poor or developing countries. They tend to have made their careers in the UN development crony establishment, as opposed to having any particular useful subject matter expertise. Such candidates, almost without exception, see the United Nations as a means of leveraging colonial guilt into cash, which is to be transferred from the rich nations of the world to the poor and developing nations, especially the nation from which the head of the agency himself is from. They also use their positions to secure jobs for their cronies, and then often the agency becomes corrupted almost as a matter of course.

I recognize that this is a cynical view.

A marked contrast to this pattern is the tenure of WIPO Director General Gurry. I’ve had the pleasure to meet with him on a couple of occasions. Most notably, I recall that DG Gurry was elected by a single vote over another candidate who would have been a disaster at the top of WIPO, at least as far as the interests of the United States are concerned.

Mr. Gurry is from Australia, and is a respected intellectual property lawyer and scholar. He’s put together a distinguished career, and his tenure so far at WIPO has been one of, for the most part, getting the organization back on track and back to the business for which it was designed, and recovering from the scandal-plagued tenure of his predecessor from the Sudan.

I thus considered the election of Mr. Gurry to be a minor miracle, occurring as it did over candidates who would have been to the significant strategic disadvantage of the United States and other developed economies.

Not only is Mr. Gurry different than most heads of UN agencies, but WIPO is also different than most UN agencies. WIPO is a technical agency, which means that it has specific jobs to do related to the world's intellectual property agreements and treaties. We're not talking UNICEF here.

All this is background for perspective on the recent news  that off-the-rack computer equipment provided to North Korea under WIPO’s technical assistance program might possibly be in violation of both US law and against the UN’s own sanctions.

I have no knowledge of the incident beyond what is being reported in the papers. The only thing I think should be added is the fact that I’m guessing that whatever equipment was provided was garden-variety computer equipment such as one would need to handle the day-to-day functions of a patent office. There is no reason why WIPO would be providing gas centrifuges or mass spectrometers, for example, to anyone.

But if the news reports are true, it must be corrected. Procedures must be put in place at WIPO to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future.

Indeed, something like that this seems to have been announced today, at least according to this WIPO press release.

But I’ve been troubled by what I think is an unwise and ill-informed reaction on the part of some in the United States, especially from folks on my side of the aisle, who are rightly skeptical and critical of the United Nations as a whole, but who miss the important fact that WIPO is a different kind of UN agency—indeed, is unique among UN agencies in at least one important respect.

Therefore, I think that knee-jerk sentiments calling for the firing of the Director General, such as these, are unwise and not in the long-term best interest of the United States. Even in light of this recent incident, Director General Gurry is far and away the best possible scenario as a Director General for WIPO who actually believes in intellectual property, comes from a traditional legal background, and understands that WIPO should be about its mission of furthering the IP system, rather than turning WIPO into yet another ineffective UN development agency.

If DG Gurry is brought down, the people who will be rejoicing are those at WIPO who would seize the opportunity to work against the interests of the United States and of the other industrialized nations.

Of particular interest to me was John Bolton’s recent op/ed in the Wall Street Journal. I share Ambassador Bolton’s skepticism about UN agencies and especially about the UN in general. However, in his piece Bolton criticized UN agencies both for consuming taxpayer dollars, but also for not consuming taxpayer dollars.

Bolton complains about the “blank check” that he says UN agencies get from the United States, reminding us that the U.S. is assessed and pays for 22% of the UN’s budget. He’s almost certainly right about the fact that the U.S. should exert more pressure on UN policies by using the leverage of this 22% budget share, which Reagan did very effectively.

But then Bolton unwisely complains that WIPO is not funded by governments but rather by the companies who use WIPO’s patent filing system. In fact, Bolton thinks this is worse, because (he implies) it means the U.S. can’t threaten to withhold funding as a form of pressure.

Well, which is it? Don’t we want WIPO to be self-funding by its users, its customers? Those who use its services? Isn’t that actually a rare market mechanism at work in a UN agency? I hardly think the fact that WIPO does not ask for subsidies from U.S. taxpayers is a bad thing—rather, it’s a virtue. WIPO is customer-funded, and those customers are largely the U.S. and western, developed countries that use the PCT system.

It’s in this way that WIPO is unique among UN institutions. It’s funded by real customers, who use its systems and who derive measurable benefit from a healthy and functioning WIPO. We should not try to make WIPO more like other UN agencies, and running off the Director General in a pique of uninformed anger would work against the interests of the United States.

To put it bluntly, if you run off Gurry, you’ll likely end up with someone worse. Probably much worse.


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