Title

Harmonization Without Consensus: Critical Reflections on Drafting a Substantive Patent Law Treaty

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2007

Keywords

patents, TRIPS Agreement, SPLT, Substantive Patent Law Treaty

Subject Category

Intellectual Property | International Law | Law

Abstract

In this Article, we contend that the World Intellectual Property Organization’s proposed Substantive Patent Law Treaty (SPLT) is premature. Developing countries are struggling to adjust to the heightened standards of intellectual property protection required by the TRIPS Agreement of 1994. With TRIPS, at least, these countries obtained side payments (in the form of trade concessions) to offset the rising costs of knowledge products. A free-standing instrument, such as the SPLT, would shrink the remaining flexibilities in the TRIPS Agreement with no side payments and no concessions to the catch-up strategies of developing countries at different stages of technological advancement.

More controversially, we argue that a deep harmonization would boomerang against even its developed country promoters by creating more problems than it would solve. There is no vision of a properly functioning patent system for the developed world that commands even the appearance of a consensus. The evidence shows, instead, that the worldwide intellectual property system has entered a brave new scientific epoch, in which experts have only tentative, divergent ideas about how best to treat a daunting array of new technologies. The proposals for reconciling the needs of different sectors, such as information technology and biotechnology, pose hard, unresolved issues at a time when the costs of litigation are rising at the expense of profits from innovation. These difficulties are compounded by the tendency of universities to push patenting up stream, generating new rights to core methodologies and research tools. As new approaches to new technologies emerge in different jurisdictions, there is a need to gather empirical evidence to determine which, if any, of these still experimental solutions are preferable over time.

Our argument need not foreclose other less intrusive options and measures surveyed in the Article that can reduce the costs of delaying harmonization. However, the international community should not rush to freeze legal obligations regarding the protection of intellectual property. It should wait until economists and policymakers better understand the dynamics of innovation and the role that patent rights play in promoting progress and until there are mechanisms in place to keep international obligations responsive to developments in science, technology, and the organization of the creative community.