Poorer countries must find new ways of protecting intellectual property, World Bank says

Poorer countries must find new ways of protecting intellectual property, World Bank says

World Bank officials at launch of new publication
Poor countries and peoples can reap the benefits of turning their own knowledge into commercial success if they find new ways of protecting and commercializing that information when the patent laws and the costly compliance of the rich countries fail to serve them, World Bank officials say.

A 263-page book called "Poor People's Knowledge: Promoting Intellectual Property in Developing Countries" uses case studies to highlight the knowledge from which poorer countries can earn income, such as craft designs, music and other cultural products, as well as medicines and traditional herbal knowledge. It also explains the problems encountered in trying to patent or copyright products that evolve over generations.

The book's editors, World Bank economists Phillip Schuler and J. Michael Finger, say it aims to fill in gaps left by the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which protects knowledge overwhelmingly owned by developed countries.

Poor people are cheated by companies that register patents based on traditional knowledge in developing countries "and then collect revenues that should go to the poorer communities," Mr. Schuler says.

The existence of intellectual property rights (IPRs) alone would not be enough to help poor countries meet that challenge, he says, suggesting that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should challenge controversial patent grants.

"The United Nations has estimated that developing countries lose at least $5 billion annually in unpaid royalties to multinational corporations that appropriate traditional knowledge," says contributor Coenraad J. Visser.

Direct links can be traced between many new medical products on the market and knowledge systems dating back millennia, say contributors Kerry ten Kate and Sarah A. Laird.

"For example, of the approximately 120 pharmaceutical products derived from plants in 1985, 75 per cent were discovered through the study of their traditional medical use," yet benefit-sharing agreements between the holders of traditional knowledge and the pharmaceutical corporations are still relatively rare, they say.

On the cultural front, while some of the weavers of Andhra Pradesh, India, were committing suicide out of despair over their inability to take care of their families, "the size of the markets enjoyed by the copies of their products that are churned out in China and southeast Asia is unknown, but is substantial," say Maureen Liebl and Tirthankar Roy.

African music forms about half of the growing "world music" scene, but since "virtually all African music that enjoys an international market is produced in Paris or London – the agglomeration of jobs that successful African music generates is not in Africa," say Frank J. Penna, Monique Thormann and Mr. Finger.

A conference convened by the World Bank's Africa Music Project in Senegal, home to some major world music stars, found that among less well-known local musicians, 80 percent were unemployed or underemployed, most local radio stations paid no royalties and the importance of training producers, managers, agents and distributors was little understood across the continent.

Legal protections for artisans has been in place in the global market for decades, but the issues of protection of ancient designs, symbols and traditional knowledge utilized in artisanal crafts have not been well established, says Betsy Fowler.

In the United States, southwestern Indian-type basketry has been copied in Pakistan and Romania has begun manufacturing and selling knockoffs of Taiwanese knockoffs of Indian jewellery. "In almost every case, the prices of such items are less than what would be charged for authentic material," she says.