[Ip-health] IP Watch: Trading Knowledge As A Public Good: A Proposal For The WTO

Krista Cox krista.cox at keionline.org
Fri Oct 14 05:29:41 PDT 2011


Trading Knowledge As A Public Good: A Proposal For The WTO
Published on 14 October 2011 @ 2:23 pm

By Rachel Marusak Hermann for Intellectual Property Watch

Years of deadlock in the Doha Round of trade negotiations at the World Trade
Organization (WTO) has prompted some to question the institution’s
effectiveness, and even, its relevance. But for others, the stalemate seems
to be favourable for new ideas and new ways to think about global trade.

During the 19-21 September WTO Public Forum 2011, Knowledge Ecology
International (KEI) and IQsensato, both not-for-profit organisations, held a
joint panel session on a proposal to the WTO entitled, “An Agreement on the
Supply of Knowledge as a Global Public Good.” The 21 September session
provided a space to debate the feasibility of adding the supply of public
goods involving knowledge as a new category in negotiated binding
commitments in international trade.

James Love, director of KEI, presented the idea. “The agreement,” he
explained, “combines voluntary offers with binding commitments by
governments to increase the supply of heterogeneous public goods. It would
be analogous to existing WTO commitments to reducing tariffs, subsidies, or
liberalising services.”

Limited access

The idea of “public goods” has been around for a while. A KEI 2008 paper on
the proposal, John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 book, The Affluent Society,
which created a stir about society’s over-supply of private goods versus a
growing under-supply of public goods. The KEI paper also cites the
contribution to the debate made by Joseph Stiglitz, who identified five
global public good categories: international economic stability,
international security (political stability), the international environment,
international humanitarian assistance, and knowledge.

It’s this last category that KEI would like to see put up for negotiation.
According to its 2008 paper, “In recent decades, an influential and
controversial enclosure movement has vastly expanded the boundaries of what
knowledge can be ‘owned,’ lengthened the legal terms of protection and
enhanced the legal rights granted to owners of the collection of legal
rights referred to as “intellectual property.”

Proposal advocates argue that in the wake of such knowledge protection, the
global community faces an under-supply of public goods, including knowledge.
Shandana Gulzar Khan, of the permanent mission of Pakistan to the WTO,
seconds this sentiment. “I feel that an acute restriction of access to
public goods and services is indeed a reality for the majority of the
world’s population.”

Love argued that the WTO is the right international institutional to
contribute to the solution. He cited a description of the WTO found on its
website: “Above all, it’s a negotiating forum…Essentially, the WTO is a
place where member governments go, to try to sort out the trade problems
they face with each other…. Although negotiated and signed by governments,
the goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and
importers conduct their business, while allowing governments to meet social
and environmental objectives.”

Defining Good

When it comes to defining what qualifies as a global public good, Love
mentioned how the International Task Force on Global Public Goods describes
them as goods that “address issues that are deemed to be important to the
international community; and that cannot, or will not, be adequately
addressed by individual countries acting alone.” The list of such priorities
is long and far-reaching.

Examples of potential ask/offers includes collaborative funding of
inducement prizes to reward open source innovation in areas of climate
change, sustainable agriculture and medicine; agreement to fund biomedical
research in areas of great importance, such as new antibiotics, avian
influenza, and the development of an AIDS vaccine; funding of projects to
improve functionality and usability of free software; and new open public
domain tools for distance education.

Some experts cautioned that deriving a universal definition of what
constitutes global public goods is a tall task. Panel speaker Antony
Taubman, director of the Intellectual Property Division at the WTO,
cautioned that public goods do not bring with them an idea of
prioritization. “One of the underlying challenges, of course, is how to
multi-lateralise the concept of public goods…. What might be considered a
high priority public good from one country’s perspective would possibly be
even rejected by another country.”

Taubman mentioned hormones for beef or genetically modified crops as current
examples of controversial public goods. “Would one country’s contribution of
a new drought resistant genetically modified crop really be considered a
valuable public good by countries that regarded that as an inappropriate

Another panellist, José Estanislau do Amaral from the permanent mission of
Brazil to the WTO and other economic organisations in Geneva, suggested ways
to take the proposal forward.

“There seems to be a double objective in the proposal,” he said. “One is to
support the creation of certain public goods and the other one is to
increase access to those goods. Both of course are interlinked and they are
mutually reinforcing. But they are objectives in themselves…. I am inclined,
at this stage, to suggest that there might be benefits in those two
objectives being pursued separately. Access to existing knowledge must not
be required to wait for the supply of new knowledge.”

The Brazilian official suggested that KEI construct a structured draft
treaty of the proposal so there could be a more advanced debate on the idea.
Love said that a draft agreement should be ready by the end of February

Krista Cox
Staff Attorney
Knowledge Ecology International
(202) 332-2670

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