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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.

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.

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