World Trade Organization Accession Agreements: Intellectual Property Issues

World Trade Organization Accession Agreements: Intellectual Property Issues

Quaker United Nations Office Global Economic Issues Publication, May 2007

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This paper addresses intellectual property issues that arise in the context of the accession process with a view toward assisting prospective WTO Members involved in negotiations. The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS Agreement”) is one of the Multilateral Trade Agreements or MTAs to which all WTO Members are party. As an ordinary consequence of joining the WTO, a state or autonomous customs territory would be expected to become party to the TRIPS Agreement and take on the obligations applicable to other Members at their respective levels of development. However, the terms of the WTO Agreement do not expressly limit the “entry fee” imposed on newly acceding Members to an equivalence of concessions with existing Members. As a consequence of this, accession negotiations have been used by certain Members as a mechanism for securing commitment to obligations in the field of intellectual property rights (IPRs) that are more extensive than those established by the TRIPS Agreement.

For any country which has not been a Member of the WTO, there is a strong possibility that the national regime governing IPRs in place prior to the commencement of accession negotiations will be inconsistent with the requirements of the TRIPS Agreement. In this regard, the process of joining the WTO even at the same level of obligation as existing Members may require a substantial adjustment in national law and corresponding industrial policy. The impact of bringing national law into baseline or “normal” TRIPS Agreement compliance should not be underestimated.

A fundamental characteristic of the TRIPS Agreement is that WTO Members have flexibility regarding the manner in which obligations are implemented. This flexibility has been recognized by the WTO Appellate Body in the India-Mailbox decision. Countries acceding to the WTO may have limited experience in drafting and implementing IPRs law. The way in which such law is drafted may substantially affect social welfare interests within the country. Certain WTO Members will express strong opinions regarding what types of legislation satisfy TRIPS Agreement requirements. Those views are not necessarily shared by other Members. In addition, technical advisers regarding IPRs law may have materially different viewpoints regarding the way in which the interests of IPRs-holders and the general public should be balanced. It is therefore important to approach the process of legal reform cautiously, taking into account the different perspectives and objectives of WTO Members and technical advisers.