When Dr Francis Gurry was appointed by acclamation as the new (and fourth) director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) last autumn, it marked a decisive turn in the history of the world’s supreme intellectual property (IP) body.
After 11 years under the leadership of Dr Kamil Idris, WIPO was ready for change. ‘People wanted less of a focus on politics and more of an emphasis on the technical mission of WIPO,’ Gurry says. And that, for sure, is what he will give them.
An Australian national with a doctorate from Cambridge, Gurry has spent most of his career within WIPO. He started there as a consultant and senior programme officer 24 years ago and is proud of the work he has undertaken along the way, establishing WIPO’s Arbitration and Mediation Center, spearheading the domain name process and the organisation’s work in the areas of traditional knowledge and life sciences and overseeing international patent policy development and the Patent Cooperation Treaty.
He says he also gets satisfaction from the part he played in enhancing the organisation’s role as a facilitator of international IP debates and as a provider of IP services.
These successes took him to the rank of deputy director general and then a contender for the number one role. Even so, he still found it something of a shock to move up into the hot seat of the top job. ‘I think it takes a year at least – maybe two years – to adapt to the demands of this position,’ he says. ‘And, although the pressures are entirely manageable, what I hadn’t anticipated was that they really leave no time for anything else!’
A high-profile agenda
This is not surprising when you think of the enormous agenda that WIPO is facing. As Gurry points out, when he moved into this area of work in the mid-1980s, IP was something of a side issue for the business community. But how things have changed. As world economies have become more reliant on knowledge to advance, so IP has become as important as oil or steel as an economic resource.
As a result, emphasises Gurry, there has also been an important cultural shift. ‘Historically, IP policy came out of the IP offices of the world with a focus on the granting of title,’ he explains. ‘More recently, there has been a shift in the discourse towards how IP is used. And that, I think, is where the big issues lie.’
To drive home this point, Gurry positions the debate about IP as being primarily about ‘innovation and culture’. So although ownership of IP is crucially important, even more significant is how innovation can continue to create a viable economic system for the long term – and one from which, ultimately, everyone can benefit.
As Gurry observed in his acceptance speech: ‘IP is not an end in itself. It is an instrumentality for achieving certain public policies, most notably the stimulation and diffusion of innovation and creativity on which we have become so dependent. [It is also concerned with] the establishment of order in the market and the countering of those enemies of markets and consumers – namely uncertainty, confusion and fraud.
‘In the end,’ he continued, ‘our debates and discussions are about how IP can best serve those underlying policies. In particular, whether modifying the international framework will enhance or constrain innovation and creativity and contribute to their diffusion, or whether it will add confusion, rather than clarity, to the functioning of the market.’
There is a careful balancing act to be accomplished here and the challenges are enormous. For Gurry, one of the key goals is institutional reform: ‘We have to become a more service-oriented organisation,’ he says, ‘with a much greater emphasis on service values.’
The other side of that coin is an acknowledgement that, at a personal level, his position as the head of a UN agency is just as much diplomatic as it is legal. His goal is to act as a neutral facilitator, being fair and responsive to everyone in the great debates currently taking place about how IP should develop. ‘If one has one’s own personal feelings then they will be trampled on,’ he says smilingly. ‘So you have to leave all that to one side. This is an international process involving great diversity in which all sides have an equal voice.’
Even so, as Gurry admits, there are some countries that are much more actively interested in the debates and have much stronger views than others.
There is also plenty of lobbying outside the official WIPO meeting rooms from an IP ‘community’, which has grown enormously. It includes not only IP lawyers and officials but judges, national government agents, pressure groups and non-governmental organisations.
One of Gurry’s main objectives now is to bring WIPO ‘centre stage’ and closer to the heart of that community. ‘Re-engaging with the multilateral community is high on my list of priorities,’ he says, adding that he wants the organisation to have a stronger profile and become better known as the institution where these big issues are discussed and debated, and solutions are hammered out.
On the road
That is why he intends to be on the road, extricating himself frequently from the cosy confines of Geneva to travel to meet the people who are driving IP policy on the ground in the world’s main economic centres. There is a real imperative to achieve a coherent and multilateral approach to the challenges the IP world faces. This is exemplified, he says, by the towering threat presented by the massive volume of work overloading patent offices where it is estimated that there are currently 3.5 million patent applications awaiting examination.
At the heart of the debate about how to deal with these is the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), which was designed to provide a multilateral means of addressing the massive demand for patent rights. Improving the worldwide IP infrastructure is a very important target for Gurry.
‘While the PCT has been a major example of success in international cooperation, for various reasons related more to the behaviour of actors in the system than to the system itself, it is not providing a sufficiently adequate solution to the crisis in demand management,’ says Gurry. ‘The problem is of such a critical and urgent nature that a solution will be found. It is of fundamental importance, I believe, that the solution be a multilateral one, rather than one established by a group or groups of the most adversely affected states.’
Of equal and fundamental significance to the effectiveness of the IP world order, says Gurry, is how to ensure that creators, performers and their business backers can be properly rewarded in the new age of the convergence of digital technology and the distributional power of the internet. ‘Resolving the copyright issues is vital for us,’ he says.
Over this issue Gurry is confident that a solution will be found, but he is concerned that this may be via systems of private law and in the private application of technical solutions. ‘Perhaps those solutions would be appropriate,’ he says. ‘But it would be unfortunate if we were to move from a centuries-old system of publicly created and overseen rights to systems of private law simply by default, as opposed to conscious choice.’
Linked to this is WIPO’s role in supporting developing economies. Gurry feels that the organization could potentially be doing much more in this area, but the issues are very complex. ‘People [at WIPO] are one hundred per cent behind the idea of development but are frustrated at their inability hitherto to make a bigger contribution,’ he says. ‘So the question here is, how do we do this?’
Alongside these big strategic issues, Gurry also highlights specific items of concern on his agenda such as improving access by the visually impaired to published works. But nothing is going to be achieved overnight. ‘Give us three to five years and then we’ll see what progress has been made,’ he says.
In view of the scale of what he faces, that may not be an unreasonable request. It will also be just before he comes up for re-election. Sounds like good timing.
This article first appeared in IP Review, issue 26