How the World Intellectual Property Organization has changed, and why that matters?

Intellectual property (IP) rules and policy sit at the heart of high-stakes battles across the global knowledge economy. On matters as diverse as internet piracy, access to medicines, counterfeiting, data privacy and domain names to the use of seeds, and indigenous knowledge, news headlines regularly highlight disputes over how societies regulate the ownership of information, ideas, technology and creative efforts – and access to them.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) administers some twenty-six IP-related treaties and plays a leading role in promoting the use of the IP system across the world, including stronger IP rights and enforcement.

But WIPO is more than a treaty administering organisation. It plays an important global governance role, as IP rules have significant distributional consequences within and across nations in terms of the ownership of knowledge and access to technologies.

WIPO is also a unique organisation. Its governance structure is recognised as one of the most complex within the UN system. It also operates based on a self-financing service-based business model allowing it to generate up to 95% of its income without Member State contributions.

The ongoing research by Carolyn Deere-Birkbeck Visiting Fellow at the Graduate Institute’s Global Governance Centre and Senior Researcher at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, offers the first comprehensive review of the evolution and politics of WIPO’s governance system.

On 26 February 2018, Dr. Deere-Birkbeck presented her draft book manuscript on the topic during the Centre’s Global Governance Colloquium Series.  Prof. Thomas Biersteker led the discussions for the presentation, which explored why the WIPO governance system has changed over time and to what extent, why certain reform proposals arose and succeed at particular times, and where the impetus for those changes came from.

While WIPO is unique in its governance structure and financing model, Dr. Deere-Birkbeck suggests that the organisation is not unique to the calls for reform that affect other international organisations. This research fills an important gap as it identifies outstanding challenges to the governance of WIPO and the political economy of global economic governance in the IP arena more broadly. It also helps build conceptual understanding of the governance of international organisations and the reform of UN agencies.


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