This post by Job Michael Mathew first appeared on the Global Congress 2015 Blog.
The fifth discussion in our pre-GCIP discussion series is with Jayashree Watal.
Profile: Jayashree Watal has been Counsellor in the Intellectual Property Division of the World Trade Organization since February 2001. She worked in the Ministry of Commerce of the Government of India as Director, Trade Policy Division, New Delhi (1995–1998). She represented India at a crucial stage in the Uruguay Round TRIPS negotiations from 1989–1990.
JMM: One of the major reasons for developing countries agreeing to the TRIPS agreement was the incorporation of Articles 7 and 8 which allow countries certain flexibilities in enforcing obligations under the agreement. Two decades since the beginning of TRIPS many if not most developing countries have not been able to take full advantage of these flexibilities. What explains this gap between the text of the agreement and its practical application?
JW: There were several reasons for developing countries like India agreeing to the TRIPS Agreement. Firstly, TRIPS contains policy options, including through exceptions and limitations to IPRs, that allow WTO members to take measures to protect public interest, for example through compulsory licences and parallel imports. Secondly, not accepting TRIPS would have meant leaving the multilateral trading system and facing unilateral action – a price considered by many countries to be too high given that the final agreement was fairly balanced and that there were trade benefits to be obtained especially in textiles and agriculture. Thirdly, many of these countries were already TRIPS compliant with the exception of a limited number of provisions. At the same time, many were already responding to contemporary geopolitical changes by unilaterally liberalizing their trade and investment policies; maintaining certain minimum IPR standards without compromising vital public interest went in the same direction.
The perspective of some twenty years ago has hence changed and TRIPS has come into focus as a reasonably flexible framework rather than the highly restrictive constraint on domestic policymaking and pre-emption of policy options that some feared. Experience has shown that developing countries have been able to work within the TRIPS framework in diverse ways interpreting and applying TRIPS standards, and framing their IP laws and policies, in diverse ways that are tailored to their national interests and domestic circumstances. Articles 7 and 8 of the TRIPS Agreement are indeed important benchmarks for policymakers taking account of public policy when framing and implementing IP laws and policies, but the practical experience we can now survey from countries across the globe in applying specific TRIPS provisions offers concrete insights into the constructive way the general standards of the agreement are adapted and implemented to take account of changing policy needs, and other social, economic and technological changes. Empirical surveys such as the useful work done by the WIPO Secretariat in reporting to the WIPO Committee on Development and Intellectual Property on the use of patent-related flexibilities not only show the extent of flexibilities implemented, but potentially serve as a factual basis for constructive dialogue and mutual learning about contemporary trends in IP policymaking in the developing world within the TRIPS framework. See http://www.wipo.int/ip-development/en/agenda/flexibilities/search.jsp
JMM: The TRIPS Agreement was an example of consensus based multilateral norm setting on intellectual property. Two decades since TRIPS, multilateral norm setting on intellectual property is at a standstill and regional and bilateral avenues which certain commentators have called ‘power based’ as opposed to ‘rule based’ are setting norms on IP. How do you think a change in forum from multilateral to bilateral or plurilateral affects the negotiating power of developing country negotiators? Further can you shed some light on the additional challenges negotiators from developing countries faced during the TRIPS negotiations on account of the politically sensitive nature of intellectual property negotiations considering its impact on access to medicine etc?
JW: It is worth bearing in mind that the genesis of the TRIPS negotiations can be found, at least in part, in the desire of many countries – including developed countries – to find a more transparent, rules-based approach to dealing with inevitable bilateral disagreements over the trade dimension of IP: the preamble of TRIPS refers to the reduction of tensions through multilateral resolution of disputes. This background lies behind the consensus to conclude an agreement on TRIPS. Equally, though, the TRIPS negotiations illustrated how developing countries can benefit in trade negotiations from strong coalitions among themselves, coalitions that can also bridge across the traditional north-south divide. , A broader base of support and engagement in multilateral settings can offset the more narrowly defined targets of demandeurs in the negotiations. This can happen in a multilateral context or even in a plurilateral context. This more inclusive approach is less likely by definition in a bilateral trade negotiation. A recent WTO publication The Making of the TRIPS Agreement is available for free download chapter by chapter at https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/publications_e/trips_agree_e.htm . There are many chapters authored by developing country negotiators that discuss exactly these considerations.
JMM: In the context of a number of trade agreements involving intellectual property chapters negotiated in secret, what are the pros and cons of conducting open negotiations?
JW: In any negotiation process with significant issues at stake, there are competing considerations of transparency and inclusion, and managing the dynamics of negotiations. Reaching consensus in a multilateral or plurilateral negotiation, irrespective of forum or subject, is very difficult. It is even more so when each party’s “bottom lines” or “red lines” are known to other parties, and the actual progress of negotiations is entirely open to immediate debate and analysis. Compromises and understandings that have to be made to progress any negotiation become more difficult if the entire process is open to all to observe. It is hard to prescribe the correct way of addressing this balance for each and every trade negotiation, and to determine the best mechanism for transparency and consultation that should apply in each case. As a general observation, however, it does behove negotiators and those instructing them, to ensure a good degree of transparency and a broad base of consultation, not least because this will build understanding and acceptance of the ultimate negotiated outcome.
JMM: What role can multilateral institutions such as WTO and WIPO play in the context of intellectual property negotiations moving to bilateral or plurilateral forums?
JW: The range and complexity of recent intellectual property norm-setting in bilateral and regional forums is unprecedented. Setting aside the question of the perceived virtues and shortcomings of this approach, there is unquestionably a common challenge in developing a comprehensive overview of the cumulative effect of several hundred new treaties dealing with IP norms, and the overall trends that can be discerned. Considering the role of the WTO, while WTO Members are clearly entitled to enter into regional trade agreements (RTAs, also known as free trade agreements or preferential trade agreements)subject to the conditions laid down in the multilateral trade agreements, the WTO system provides for transparency and review of their provisions. This work is actively undertaken in the Committee on RTAs; the WTO Trade Policy Review Mechanism has also produced valuable information on RTAs and similar agreements with IP standards. The TRIPS Council has from time to time had bilateral and plurilateral norm setting questions on its agenda. WTO is a member-driven organization and members continue to debate on how to respond to the overall trend towards bilateral and plurilateral norm setting, and its implications for the multilateral system. Among analysts, some maintain FTAs can serve as building blocks for further multilateral trade liberalization. Other analysts question the continuing effectiveness of a “single undertaking” approach to multilateral negotiations, and advocate pre- Uruguay Round type plurilateral agreements.
JMM: The years since the TRIPS have seen a changing landscape of innovation in the fields of biotechnology, computer technology etc. Do these changes necessitate a revision of the TRIPS agreement or can the flexibilities in the agreement take care of such changes?
JW: TRIPS is a minimum standards agreement and provides a balanced framework that can accommodate the evolving technological landscape. An example would be the revolutionary developments in biotechnology that have occurred in the past two decades: WTO Members, through policy processes, legislation, and court decisions, have dealt with the implications of these developments in flexible ways within the established TRIPS framework. The TRIPS negotiations took place at a time when the internet was largely unknown and in the meantime, digital technology has revolutionised not only copyright but the way in which much creative content is distributed and traded. The WIPO Internet Treaties of 1996 represented a multilateral step forward taking account of digital technologies in a manner consciously consistent with TRIPS. Since that time, there has been a great deal of norm-setting in this area in bilateral negotiations and more recently in plurilateral processes. It is for the international community to take collective stock of these developments, although there is currently no apparent momentum. The TRIPS Agreement does contain provision for reviews “in the light of any relevant new developments” which might “warrant modification or amendment” of the Agreement. However, there are no proposals tabled by WTO Members at present under this provision.
 Jayashree Watal has researched and published articles on issues related to the law and economics of intellectual property rights, including a book Intellectual Property Rights in the WTO and Developing Countries (Oxford University Press, India and Kluwer Law International, 2001). She was the editor of the book ‘The Making of the TRIPS Agreement’ which details the negotiating process of the agreement from the standpoint of the negotiators themselves.