Make Innovations work for all: reframing Intellectual Property Rights
It sounds so logical: patents and other intellectual property rights protect investments in innovations, allowing more innovations to be made from which the whole world can benefit. Such as new medicines or drought-resistant crops. But in practice, these property rights often have the opposite effect, hindering access to innovations for those who need them the most.
Intellectual property rights (IPR) have been in existence for several hundred years, but really took off during the industrial revolution. IPRs can take different forms, including patents, copyright, trademarks and laws protecting plant varieties, and are regulated at various levels (national and international). The main aim of all these regulations is to protect 'creations of the mind'. The idea is that by protecting new inventions, inventors and developers – whether they are individuals or companies – will be more likely to continue to invest in innovation. After all, without this protection there is a risk that others will make use of the innovation, making it impossible to earn back the investment.
WIPO and TRIPS: international agreements on intellectual property
To protect intellectual property throughout the world, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was set up in 1967, with the aim of promoting cooperation on IPR between states. The agreements made within WIPO were however not internationally binding. So those who benefitted from property rights (primarily Western countries and companies) sought for a way to change the situation. In 1994, the members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) signed an agreement known as TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights).
In brief, TRIPS means that all WTO member states have to introduce and enforce laws and rules relating to IPR at national level. If a country violates the TRIPS agreements, the owner of a patent can push for a claim being submitted to the WTO. The WTO assesses the claim and if it is considered justified, trade sanctions such as fines or import duties cam be imposed on the country concerned.
Far-reaching intellectual property rights lead to inequality
That all sounds logical, but the high degree of protection that these property rights provide has the negative effect of restricting free access to information, knowledge transfer and technological development, especially for low and middle income countries. That also applies to products that are of essential importance to a society, such as medicines and seeds. As a result of the TRIPS agreement, low and middle income countries are heavily dependent for innovation and improvement on inventions and innovations made in richer countries. That places these countries at a great disadvantage. Many countries, especially from the Global South, have therefore tried to keep these intellectual property rights outside the WTO, but without success.
The animation below shows what the consequences can be if the WTO forces countries to comply with its IPR rules:
Unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines
The disadvantages of intellectual property rights become very clear in the development and distribution of medicines and vaccines, which are developed by pharmaceutical companies and then protected by patents. Because they are often sold at high prices, many medicines and vaccines are inaccessible to poorer countries. This became painfully obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic: the vaccines were developed in rich Western countries – largely with public money – and fall under TRIPS. Paradoxically, most of the vaccines are produced in countries like India, whose own populations have no access to them. These countries have the knowledge, the skills, the equipment and even the manpower to produce a vaccine for their own people, but not the right to do so.
Monopoly on plants and seeds threatens food security
Another area in which property rights lead to problems is in the development and re-use of seeds. The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) was set up in 1961 to establish monopoly rights on plant varieties, so as to prevent them being 'copied' by harvesting and re-using of their seeds. This has far-reaching consequences for farmers, who traditionally save part of their harvest of grain crops, for example, to sow the following year and who work together on a small scale at local level to improve their crops and adapt them to local circumstances.
In countries affiliated to UPOV, these traditional seed systems managed by local farmers are banned, forcing the farmers to buy new seeds every year, which are usually produced by multinationals like Syngenta and Monsanto. This jeopardises food sovereignty, food security and biodiversity.
Unfortunately, the WTO has determined that all member countries must also recognise intellectual property rights for plant species. Rich countries also try to use their trade agreements with other countries to force them to join UPOV.
Stop TRIPS and UPOV
Both ENDS is working with its partners to reduce the inequality caused by agreements like TRIPS and UPOV. We are calling for a TRIPS waiver, a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on vaccines and other COVID-related medical products. In May 2021, 63 countries called on the WTO (again) to introduce this exception and to remove the restrictions on patents for medical products used to combat COVID. The Netherlands and a number of other European countries are, however, against this proposal. In June 2021, the Dutch parliament adopted the "Piri motion" to remove the restrictions on Corona vaccines, but the Netherlands is not making a great public effort to do so.
We are also working to keep UPOV out of future trade agreements. In its negotiations with other countries, the EU insists that far-reaching agreements on intellectual property rights on seeds be included in trade agreements. We are therefore working together with organisations in these countries to increase awareness of UPOV and its negative effects and to call attention to possible alternatives.
Through these activities we want to ensure that international agreements on knowledge and innovation better serve the common interest and thus benefit everyone who needs them.
Read more about this subject
International trade agreements often have far-reaching consequences not only for the economy of a country, but also for people and the environment. It is primarily the most vulnerable groups who suffer most from these agreements.
Investment treaties must be inclusive, sustainable and fair. That means that they must not put the interests of companies before those of people and their living environment.
Publication / 30 October 2023
News / 17 July 2023
On 17 and 18 July, representatives of the governments of Latin America, the Caribbean and the European Union meet in Brussels for the EU-CELAC summit. The European Commission and several EU Member States want to use this moment to accelerate the ratification of the trade and investment treaties between the EU and Mexico, the EU and Chile and the EU and the South American Mercosur countries*.
Letter / 26 June 2023
CSO reject EU policy reform that would legalize EU trade sanctions against developing countries, based on their migration policies. An important trade and development policy tool of the EU is the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP), which allows developing countries to export goods to the EU at low or no tariffs. The current GSP Regulation is to expire end of this year.
Event / 25 May 2023, 16:00 - 17:30
What does an economy look like that serves the well-being of people and the planet?
A wide range of great ideas about a transition to sustainable and just economic systems already exist, including ways to get there and examples that show that it is really possible. In this talkshow, we highlight some of these examples and hope to fuel the dialogue about this topic.
Inspired? Join our 'The Future We See' - talkshow on May 25th! You can either attend live or online, quietly listen or actively participate in the discussion. We hope to see you there!
News / 18 April 2023
In these uncertain times of accumulating national, international and global crises, we need hope and inspiration more than ever. Fortunately, many hopeful ideas and initiatives are already existing that show that it is indeed possible to change the world - and especially the systems behind it - in a sustainable and fair way. What opportunities are to be found, what is hopeful, what is already happening and how can we, as the Netherlands, respond to this?
Press release / 30 June 2022
89 NGOs and farmers' organisations from Indonesia, the EU and around the world sent open letters to the EU Commission and the Indonesian government today, calling on them to refrain from any clause that restrict farmers' rights in a future free trade agreement.
External link / 15 June 2022
Joint CSO call to all WTO Trade Ministers to not accept the current draft of Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement and demand a real Waiver
News / 13 June 2022
Intellectual property law is regulated at various levels around the world. At the international level, intellectual property rights are mainly laid down within the World Trade Organization (WTO) and in trade agreements. But what does this in practice mean for us? With this infographic, we've visualized what happens when a holder of intellectual property rights - usually a big company - thinks his rights are being violated.
News / 9 June 2022
This week, Geneva will be the epicenter of world trade, as trade ministers and other representatives from around the world gather for the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference. Liesje Schreinemacher, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, is present with a delegation. Our colleague Burghard Ilge is joining as an official member of the delegation, to represent civil society organisations. Colleague Fernando Hernandez will also travel to Geneva, to follow and try to influence the negotiations from outside the conference room together with other civil society organisations from around the world.
News / 25 April 2022
The European Union (EU) continues to demand that countries of the South introduce plant variety protection rights according to UPOV 91 in free trade agreements. This is happening in the ongoing negotiations of the EU with Indonesia, trying to take away Indonesia's flexibility to implement a law that suits its own needs and priorities. We therefore call to sign our letters on this subject to the European Commission and the Indonesian government.
Publication / 12 April 2022
Event / 22 February 2022, 16:00 - 17:30
What is the EU-Mercosur association treaty and why is it controversial? What could be the implications of the treaty for people and their livelihoods both in EU and Mercosur countries? For more information about these and other issues, see our new publication and join our interactive webinar next week!
Blog / 18 February 2022
Minister Liesje Schreinemacher for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation recently made her first working visit, to Kenya and Uganda. With this visit, the minister made a flying start in honouring the pledge in the new government's coalition agreement to formulate a 'targeted Dutch Africa strategy'. Such a strategy is desperately needed as, too often, our foreign trade is conducted at the expense of people and the environment, including in countries in Africa. The new strategy presents a perfect opportunity to ensure that the 'trade and aid' agendas are closely aligned.
Blog / 10 December 2021
Pharmaceuticals hold on to their patents and (our) governments do not remove the barriers to free production that were raised under international trade agreements years ago.
Event / 7 December 2021, 14:00 - 15:15
The European Union's (EU) foreign trade policy has many implications for the sustainability of food systems in developing countries, heavily impacting farmers, breeders, and citizens. The unhidden promotion by the EU of strong intellectual property rights on plants affects food systems from its very basis, i.e., the seeds that are available for farmers to grow. Amongst these intellectual property rights, the main instrument that is advocated by European authorities is the 1991 Act of the UPOV Convention, which provides exclusive rights to breeders over the propagating material of new plant varieties, while diminishing the rights of others to use the material for further breeding and hampering with the rights of farmers to freely save, use, exchange and sell their seeds.
Publication / 29 November 2021
Press release / 25 October 2021
The EU-Mercosur trade agreement leads to environmental destruction, violation of the land rights of farmers and indigenous people and the loss of industrial jobs in the Mercosur countries. It also creates unfair competition for European farmers. The Handel Anders! coalition is calling for an alternative agreement to improve the political cooperation between the EU and the Mercosur countries and is making proposals for just and sustainable international trade rules. That is the core message of new publication presented today in the Nieuwspoort in The Hague.
Blog / 16 February 2021
The Netherlands can contribute much to making agriculture sustainable – nationally and internationally
If the Netherlands wants to make its agriculture and livestock industry sustainable and to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their products, it will also have to look beyond its own borders. The Netherlands is the world's second largest exporter of agricultural products. We have a great impact because, through our trade relations, we uphold a system of intensive agriculture that destroys ecosystems and undermines local production. Partly due to our trade in agricultural products, the Dutch economy is has a large, and growing, footprint. That should and can be different: the Netherlands is in a good position to lead the required transition in agriculture. Fortunately, the party manifestos for the coming elections offer sufficient opportunities to set that in motion. A new coalition can thus take decisive new steps.