World IP Day: WIPO’S Francis Gurry on the Pandemic’s Challenges

In News by Porter Anderson

On World Intellectual Property Day, WIPO chief Francis Gurry looks at the priorities of the IP community, in particular during the coronavirus pandemic.

World Intellectual Property Organization director-general Francis Gurry speaks in a video interview from his offices in Geneva. Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘It’s Not a Question of Access’
April is heavy with special-observance days that relate to publishing, including International Children’s Book Day, World Book and Copyright Day, and, on April 26, World Intellectual Property Day.

Sunday’s observation of World Intellectual Property Day was as muted as you might expect in a year in which the world is gripped by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. The Worldometer tallies—which always trend a bit ahead of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center at this writing on April 27 already have assigned 3,014,895 cases to the world total, while the Johns Hopkins charts still are 10,000 cases from the 3 million mark. Sadly, it won’t take long.

In deaths, Johns Hopkins reports 207,431 worldwide, the Worldometer total at 207,928. And in Switzerland, where WIPO is based, garden centers and hairdressers are to begin opening for business today (April 27), with schools to follow in two weeks.

And in a conversation with Francis Gurry, the World Intellectual Property Organization’s director-general, what becomes apparent is that WIPO, as it’s called, finds itself communicating the urgency of a kind of shift in how we often think of copyright, patents, trademarks, even treaties, and the development and protection of intellectual property.

Normally access is the key question around many issues in IP today, and WIPO’s work frequently revolves around the concept of access: who has access  to your intellectual property? How can they use it? What do they owe to you to use it? What access do you owe to the world to what you produce?

As one of WIPO’s most fundamental statements of mission puts it, “By striking the right balance between the interests of innovators and the wider public interest, the IP system aims to foster an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish.” In other words, if adequately protected so that rights holders are properly remunerated and safeguarded as owners, they’ll be encouraged to allow appropriate access to those who need and want it to their work.

“But my view of the problem now is not access,” Gurry says to Publishing Perspectives. When it comes to the lethal contagion sweeping the international markets and staggering whole economies for an unknown  duration, “The problem is that we’ve got nothing to have access to. We don’t have a vaccine, a treatment, or a cure.”

‘The Problem Now Is Not Access’

Publishing Perspectives readers are familiar with WIPO’s and Gurry’s work, of course, through its successful development of the Marrakesh Treaty that’s giving a growing part of the world’s reading-challenged population access to literature and information, allowing copyrighted content in accessible formats to cross borders. There’s an update ahead on the Marrakesh and the Accessible Books Consortium which was established in 2014 to implement the treaty’s goals, and we’ll have that soon for you, all about issues of access.

But at the moment, needless to say, the crushing effects of the pandemic are the priority, throwing unthinkable numbers of people out of work, sending governments scrambling to inject funds into nosediving economies, straining the limits of medical response teams, and leaving families, friends, and colleagues stunned by sudden and difficult illnesses and deaths amid deepening mysteries about the nature of the novel coronavirus behind them.

As Ariana Eunjung Cha reports for the Washington Post, even the mechanisms by which COVID-19 can take a life aren’t fully understood, the latest surprise being a high rate of blood clotting in patients causing strokes even in younger victims. “One month ago when the United States went into lockdown to prepare for the first wave of coronavirus cases,” Cha writes, “many doctors felt confident they knew what they were dealing with. Based on early reports, COVID-19 appeared to be a standard variety respiratory virus, albeit a contagious and lethal one with no vaccine and no treatment. They’ve since seen how COVID-19 attacks not only the lungs, but also the kidneys, heart, intestines, liver and brain.”

As Gurry says, when it comes to the content around the contagion, it’s not a question of access—it’s a dearth of material, of understanding, and of innovative response.

‘Some Considerations’ on IP and COVID-19

So it is that on Friday, Gurry posted a paper to WIPO’s site that will be of immediate interest to those who work in the content communities of the world. His opening lines lay it right out:

“The main challenge at the present time is not access to vaccines, treatments, or cures for COVID-19, but the absence of any approved vaccines, treatments, or cures to have access to.  The policy focus of governments at this stage should therefore be on supporting science and innovation that will produce a vaccine, treatments or cures.”

What you’re reading there is a kind of permissioning, a fiat from the United Nation’s highest agency dealing with how we protect, share, and promulgate information.

“It should be noted that many rights holders across the world have voluntarily taken steps, through innovative licensing arrangements and other measures, to provide free access to vast quantities of relevant content during the crisis.”

You’ll recall the “education continuity license” developed by Copyright Clearance Center to give publishers a way to allow educators to work in online settings—rather than in classrooms—with locked down students. Similarly, Canada’s Access Copyright has developed “Read Aloud Canadian Books,” a special exception to let librarians and others read copyrighted texts to children online. And, of course, many major purveyors of scholarly research have thrown open access to the relevant literature to all who need to work with it.

‘All of Our Old Touchstones’

An April 16 shot at Zurich’s airport. Image – iStockphoto: Gekkoxxx

In interview, Gurry points out that one of the biggest threats to what’s occurring now is, of all things, the sophisticated levels at which “fake news” can operate.

The recent blunder made by Donald Trump in speculating recklessly on a notion of treating COVID-19 patients with disinfectants, of course, set off an international scramble among medical authorities, the various legitimate news media–and makers of disinfectants–to disavow Trump’s musings and warn people away from such dangerous nonsense, even as poison control centers reported spikes in inquiries on the topic. If you need an update on that incident, here’s Matt Flegenheimer at The New York Times.

When it comes to the wider international pandemic of disinformation ready to poison whole seas of content with bad material, “This is out of control,” Gurry says. “For me, perhaps the biggest problem we face in the whole digital transformation,” he says, “is fake news, the quality of information. We are really at risk there.

“All of our old touchstones of what we trusted have been disrupted in the course of the last 20 years.”

And so what his paper attempts to do is to prioritize the vulnerabilities in terms of top-quality, critically needed intellectual property—and how the international intellectual property community needs to understand and assess the crisis. You’ll find that this goes all the way to the maddening governmental stumbles seen in many countries to such mundane issues as simply producing coronavirus test kits and enough supplies for heroic medical workers.

“In respect of access, the first task is to identify the barriers to access.

“Many barriers to access exist, such as the lack of manufacturing capacity for vital medical supplies or equipment, impediments to the movement of such supplies and equipment across borders, import duties, lack of internal transportation and delivery mechanisms and lack of adequate health systems and infrastructure. These obstacles need to be addressed by governments.

“Intellectual property (IP) may also constitute a barrier to access, if innovation produces effective results and if countries are not able to obtain the innovation on appropriate and affordable terms. In this regard, provisions exist at the national and international levels to facilitate access where IP is a barrier. The application of these provisions should be targeted and time-bound, in other words, related specifically to demonstrated IP barriers to access in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and bearing in mind that, without innovation, there will be nothing to have access to.

“In the cultural and creative sector, exceptions and limitations exist in IP systems to facilitate access in certain circumstances and under certain conditions to books, publications and other creative content.  Such creative content has a vital role to play in the distribution of data, information and knowledge that may be essential for innovation or for dealing with the adverse conditions of confinement and lock-down necessarily imposed in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“The exercise of these flexibilities, in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, should again be targeted to demonstrated lack of access, and limited to the purpose of remedying any such lack of access for the duration of the crisis.  It should be noted that many rights holders across the world have voluntarily taken steps, through innovative licensing arrangements and other measures, to provide free access to vast quantities of relevant content during the crisis.”

You can read Gurry’s full article, “Some Considerations on Intellectual Property, Innovation, Access and COVID-19” on WIPO’s site here.

More from Publishing Perspectives on WIPO is here, and more from us on issues of intellectual property and copyright is here. More on the coronavirus pandemic is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.