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TRIPS: Intellectual Property Rights and WTO

by source: cornerhouse - 03.12.2004 20:58

"Who Owns the Knowledge Economy?
Political Organising Behind TRIPS"

by Peter Drahos with John Braithwaite

Corner House Briefing Paper 32


Ten years ago this year, TRIPS -- the World Trade Organisation's agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights -- was signed by more than 100 government ministers.

TRIPS was the most important agreement on intellectual property of the 20th century. It revolutionised the way that property rights in information were defined and enforced, and effectively globalised its intellectual property principles, because most countries are members of (or are seeking membership of) the World Trade Organisation.

Yet during the 1980s, almost everyone in the business and trade community thought TRIPS was a bad idea. It was against the interests of almost everyone except a few software, pharmaceutical, chemical and entertainment companies in the US and, to a lesser extent, in Europe and Japan.

It was also a pipe dream. It seemed completely implausible that an agreement to expand monopoly rights could be put into a regime that was about dismantling trade monopolies and removing barriers to competition.

So why did more than 100 states that had little to gain by agreeing to these terms of trade for intellectual property -- terms that offered a few countries so much protection -- sign up to TRIPS?

Because of a failure of democratic processes, both nationally and internationally.

This failure enabled a small group of men within the United States to capture the US trade-agenda-setting process and then, in partnership with European and Japanese multinationals, to draft intellectual property principles that became the blueprint for TRIPS. The resistance of other countries was crushed through US trade power.

This is the conclusion of Australian researchers Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite. They interviewed over 500 key informants because "many of the regulatory standards that have a global reach in our world are shaped by informal negotiations of which no written record is made."

Their research, summarised in this latest Corner House briefing paper, reveals "what the formal language of international intellectual property agreements does not: the informal dynamic of power that determines the choice of words, their meaning and subsequent utilization".

TRIPS was possible only because an elite in the US, Japan and Europe set aside their differences and united around global intellectual property protection. Resisting this new paradigm requires diverse groups and communities to unite in a global politics that forces governments to design intellectual property rights to serve the welfare and basic freedoms of citizens.

It also requires understanding the long-term organising strategies of a few business visionaries in order to challenge current attempts to increase and extend intellectual property rights, to halt widening inequalities, and to redefine TRIPS as a matter of injustice.

Corner House Briefing 32
"Who Owns the Knowledge Economy?
Political Organising Behind TRIPS"
by Peter Drahos with John Braithwaite
is now on The Corner House website in html and PDF formats,