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Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 20:33 GMT 21:33 UK
Intellectual property rights 'harm poor'
Computer, BBC
Particular concern over computers and digital media

The expansion of intellectual property (IP) rights is unlikely to help most developing countries, an independent report says.

Instead, it will increase their costs, by making them pay more for medicines and seeds.


If this report is cast aside, it will be a disaster for millions of poor farmers

ActionAid
The report says the same arguments apply to the real benefits the internet can bring to the developing world.

It says rich and poor countries have differing interests, and expanding IP rights makes poverty reduction more difficult.

The report is the work of the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights (CIPR), set up by the UK Government but independent of it. The members are from the US, UK, Argentina and India.

The commission urges developed countries, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to take poor countries' circumstances and needs into account when developing IP systems.

Digital media

It is chaired by Professor John Barton, of Stanford University, US.

He said: "Developed countries often proceed on the assumption that what is good for them is likely to be good for developing countries.

"But, in the case of developing countries, more and stronger protection is not necessarily better. They should not be encouraged or coerced into adopting stronger IP rights without regard to the impact this has on their development and poor people.

"They should be allowed to adopt appropriate rights regimes, not necessarily the most protective ones."

The commission says poor countries may be harmed in the areas of health, agriculture, education and information technology.

Professor Barton expressed concern over policy on the digital media and the internet.

He said: "The temptation to impose very strict protection because of the ease with which software and other digital media can be copied may diminish the very real benefits they could bring to developing countries, particularly in accessing educational and scientific documents at low cost."

'Prior art'

The commission believes that patents have provided an incentive for the private sector to develop medicines which in many cases benefit both rich and poor.

But it says the IP system "hardly plays any role in stimulating research on diseases particularly prevalent in developing countries" unless there is also a substantial market in the developed world.

Aids, AP
The issue of patents and Aids drugs has been a very controversial issue
It fears that the global strengthening of IP rights is likely to drive up the overall cost of medicines in poor countries if nothing is done. One answer could be differential pricing, allowing lower prices in the developing world.

The report says developing countries should not provide patent protection for plants and animals, because of the restrictions they may place on the use of seeds by farmers and researchers.

It recommends a broader definition of what is called "prior art" - knowledge already in the public domain, on which IP rights cannot be claimed.

Profit priority

The US is among those countries which do not recognise such knowledge when it comes from beyond their own borders.

The development charity ActionAid welcomed the report, which it said "has taken a big step in acknowledging that intellectual property rights legislation has a detrimental effect on poor countries."

Ruchi Tripathi of ActionAid said: "The UK Government now has the opportunity to take a lead and call on the international community to radically reform the Trips agreement and adopt a system that protects the rights of poor farmers and supports development worldwide."

The Trips agreement is the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

ActionAid says the report "draws attention to the fact that patents allow big business to monopolise biotechnology, thereby prioritising profit over the needs of poor farmers".

"If this report is cast aside, it will be a disaster for millions of poor farmers."

See also:

25 Jun 02 | Business
19 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
21 Dec 01 | Americas
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