Intellectual property

Even before the World Trade Organization (WTO) lurched into its current state of crisis, bilateral FTAs had become a tool of choice for corporate and state interests seeking to expand intellectual property rights (IPR) standards. IPRs confer monopoly rights over intangible goods and services — methods of doing business on the internet, trademarks, computer programmes, designs, manufacturing processes, drug formulations or types of rice. They give IPR owners the right to prevent anyone from making or using their "creation". As such, they provide companies a direct tool to control a portion of the market, to block out competition and to fence off territories. Ironically, while IPR chapters are key aspects of many “free” trade and investment agreements, they are little more than protectionism for transnational corporations (TNCs), administered by governments. TNCs argue that without monopolies, there will be no innovation. Sharing should be banned; only capitalistic trade based on exclusive private property should be the norm.

Through FTAs, bilateral investment treaties (BITs) and other forms of direct agreements between countries, the US and Europe are insisting that the partner country adopt their standards of IPR protection and enforcement. This process has happened multilaterally via the WTO and the World Intellectual Property Organization. But it is now being pushed very aggressively through unilateral, bilateral and regional agreements — deals which go much further than the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property rights (TRIPs). FTAs are setting “TRIPs-plus” standards.

The US imposes patents on plants and animals in its FTAs, while the EU and Japan, for the benefit of their biotech companies, push the UPOV Convention, a set of patent-like rules to prevent farmers from saving seeds. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical corporations have turned to FTAs as tools to impose stricter rules preventing the manufacture and trade of generic drugs. For many countries, and many peoples, these propositions are nothing short of revolutionary. Because it means they have to

- extend protection for branded drugs and limit parallel imports, hampering the availability of affordable generic medicines
- start patenting plants and animals, which means farmers cannot save seed or reproduce fish breeds or livestock
- get rid of screen quotas that give preference to the showing of local films
- start patenting computer software, to the detriment of local programmers and the creative open source movements now mushrooming up across the world as a cheaper alternative to Microsoft
- extend copyright protection, which already causes serious problems for students, libraries and educational institutions
- clamp down on piracy of popular consumer goods like digital products, clothing and music
- make IPR infringements criminal offences, even though IPR is part of civil law
and the list goes on.

Through IPRs, corporations seek monopoly control over vast areas of life. They expect that we should all regularly pay them licenses to use their products and to reimburse their research and development costs. Never mind all the public subsidies, tax breaks, university contract labour and so on that go into their research and development in the first place. IPR laws being pushed through bilateral channels make it public policy that countries should protect the TNCs, the real pirates.

Because of the serious implications that ‘TRIPs-plus’ IPR chapters of FTAs have for broad cross-sections of societies, in some anti-FTA struggles, such as the fightback against the US-Thailand FTA, farmers and people living with HIV/AIDS have joined together in their opposition of this new threat to their survival. Concerns have also been raised about the way in which the EU’s EPAs include TRIPs-plus provisions, while Indigenous Peoples in many countries continue to assert alternative frameworks for the use and sharing of traditional knowledge that challenge the capitalist, commodified logic of “intellectual property rights” enshrined in free trade and investment agreements.

More recently, a new development in transnational IPR enforcement has sparked opposition and controversy, including major protests in many European cities. In October 2011, after a secretive negotiations process, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was signed by a number of countries and will come into effect once six countries have ratified it. ACTA would potentially set up a new international legal framework for enforcing IPR. Opponents have criticized the agreement’s impact on privacy, freedom of expression and internet freedoms, and generic drug manufacturing.

last update: May 2012


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  • 4-Nov-2015 DNA India Will the Trans Pacific Partnership have an impact on Indian pharma industry?
    Implications of the TPP on the Indian pharma industry might not be entirely clear yet. But there is a need for India to engage in the debate of trade deals and public interest.
  • 30-Oct-2015 NZ Herald New Zealand open to ditching old ISDS model under NZ - EU trade deal
    New Zealand has an open mind about replacing traditional investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) with a new international court-based system proposed by the European Union.
  • 28-Oct-2015 The Wire India must resist US pressure on generic drugs, African leaders to tell Modi
    So far, the NDA government has been a mute spectator to the US pharma strategy of forcing Indian generics manufacturers to produce only what is required for Indian consumers and abandon the export of cheap drugs to Africa
  • 28-Oct-2015 Don’t trade our lives away USITC Report on India (#2) now available
    The United States International Trade Commission (USITC) has published a report on IPR policy transparency by India’s new government
  • 23-Oct-2015 Electronic Frontier Foundation How trade agreements harm open access and open source
    Open access isn’t explicitly covered in any of the secretive trade negotiations that are currently underway but that doesn’t mean that they won’t have a negative impact on those seeking to publish or use open access materials.
  • 14-Oct-2015 Daily Nation Drugs row threatens health sector budget
    Ahead of a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Modi and German Chancellor Merkel this week, European manufacturers had already protested India’s patents policy, arguing that it doesn’t protect sensitive technology.
  • 1-Oct-2015 ALAI Soberanía cognitiva y tecnológica, e integración
    Esta dependencia de una ciencia y tecnología impulsada por países con economías avanzadas dificulta, justamente, que la región pueda responder adecuadamente a sus propias prioridades y las necesidades particulares de sus pueblos.
  • 1-Oct-2015 SSRN Corporate power unbound: investor-state arbitration of IP monopolies on medicines - Eli Lilly v. Canada and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement
    Despite the deep irony of free trade agreements being subverted to codify and extend anti-competitive monopoly rights the joining of enhanced intellectual property rights (IPRs) and strengthened investor rights is creating a wild-west opportunity for unbounded corporate power.
  • 12-Aug-2015 KEI KEI briefing note on the evolution of TPP negotiating text on patentable subject matter
    The KEI briefing note underlines the evolution of certain sections of the TPP negotiating text on patents and patentable subject matter.
  • 12-Aug-2015 ZDNet NZ IT industry mobilises to fight TPP software patent threat
    The Institute of IT Professionals joins the NZ Open Source Society in questioning TPP deal on software patents.
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  • Citizens Trade Campaign - Intellectual Property Rights
  • Don’t trade our lives away
    DNP+ and MSF Access Campaign India have set up a blog about the ongoing negotiations of a number of multi- and bilateral free trade agreements, which harm the access to essential medicines.
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation: FTAA and bilateral FTA resources
    The Electronic Frontier Foundation is studying the copyright provisions related to information technology of free trade agreements (e.g. US-Chile, US-Singapore)
  • IIPA’s FTA page
    The International Intellectual Property Alliance, a US lobby group defending copyright industries, is very active on FTAs
  • Intellectual Property Watch
    IP Watch is a Geneva-based initiative to report on the interests and ‘behind the scenes’ dynamics which influence intellectual property policies, including those carried through bilateral and regional trade agreements.
  • IP Justice
    IP Justice is an international civil liberties organization that promotes balanced intellectual property law in a digital world, active on the IP implications of the FTAA and specific FTAs
  • Media Trade Monitor
    Media Trade Monitor is a resource pool for information about the impact of global, regional, and bilateral trade agreements on media, culture, and communication.
  • Observatorio para la Cibersociedad