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The World Trade Organisation - An Australian Guide
- 2006 Edition
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Download the PDF version of this guide here

WTO & "Intellectual Property"

Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) are a relatively new concept. They were originally granted for the invention of new machines. IPRs were first put on the global trade agenda as part of the 1984 Uruguay Round of the GATT, and in 1995 the "Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property" (TRIPs) Agreement became international law.

IPRs are not a traditional part of "free trade" - even many free-trade economists oppose their inclusion on the WTO's agenda. The fact that they are there is a testament to the power of the big multinational corporations which wrote and lobbied for the agreement. IPRs were put on the WTO agenda thanks to the lobbying of a committee of 13 major companies. In the negotiations that followed, 96 out of the 111 members of the US delegation working on intellectual property rights were from the private sector (59). Little surprise, then, that the final agreement serves corporate interests, and undermines poor people's access to knowledge and technology.


"I served on the Clinton administration's Council of Economic Advisors at the time [of developing the TRIPS agreement], and it was clear that there was more interest in pleasing the pharmaceutical and entertainment industries than in ensuring an intellectual-property regime that was good for science, let alone for developing countries."
- Joseph Stiglitz, Former World Bank Chief Economist (61)

Corporations in the rich world are the world's biggest owners of intellectual property. Industrialised countries hold over 97% of patents worldwide, and almost 90% of these are held by large corporations (60). The WTO's TRIPs agreement is essentially about extending these corporations' rights over the world's foods, medicines, and even our genes. Under TRIPs, a patent owner has the exclusive right to prevent anyone from making, using, selling, offering for sale or importing a patented product.

The benefits of TRIPs have flowed almost totally to multinational corporations. Corporations have abused their power by increasing the prices of medicines to even the poorest people. They have used TRIPs to secure patents, and thus "ownership" over indigenous and traditional knowledge, and even living organisms.

TRIPs & The Right to Medicine

High medicine prices stop poor people accessing life-saving medicines, and the TRIPs agreement is the main reason for high drug prices around the world. Thanks to the corporations which make up the US Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association - which lobbied hard to make TRIPs a reality (62) - TRIPs rules prevent poor countries from manufacturing or buying cheaper generic versions of pharmaceuticals while they are still under a patent. Developing countries are obliged to enforce monopoly pricing of drugs through patents for a minimum of 20 years.

There are exemptions to TRIPS, including the right of countries to protect public health by issuing a "compulsory license" to manufacture a medicine in an emergency. But for poor countries without the capability to do this, TRIPs imposes complex rules which make importing drugs under compulsory license extremely difficult.

WTO Denies Medicines to the Poor

For 35 years, India's patent laws have allowed cheap copies of medicines to be made without a licensing fee, helping people around the world to afford life-saving medicines. Generic competition fueled by Indian production has been largely responsible for the global reduction in prices of AIDS drugs by as much as 98% (63). India is the world's third largest drug exporter "and its 'generics' pharmaceutical industry provides treatment to almost half of the 700,000 HIV-infected people currently on HIV antiretrovirals in developing countries, especially in Africa (64). But in 2005, the Indian government was forced by intense pressure from the WTO to overturn its patent laws for all medicines invented since 1995. It will mean an end to cheap copies of AIDS drugs and other medicines both for Indians and people with HIV-AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Southern and Southeast Asia (65). Millions could die because of this WTO decision (66).

TRIPs and Genetic Modification

The TRIPs agreement extends Western patent laws into the furthest reaches of rural areas in developing countries. TRIPs grants corporations the right to patent life-forms from micro-organisms to plants, animals and non-biological processes for producing plants and animals.


"Patents and intellectual property rights are supposed to be granted for novel inventions. But patents are being claimed for rice varieties such as the Basmati for which my Valley - where I was born - is famous, or pesticides derived from the Neem which our mothers and grandmothers have been using. Rice Tec, a U.S. based company has been granted Patent no. 5,663,484 for Basmati rice lines and grains. Basmati, Neem, pepper, bitter gourd, turmeric . . . every aspect of the innovation embodied in our indigenous food and medicinal systems is now being pirated and patented. The knowledge of the poor is being converted into the property of global corporations, creating a situation where the poor will have to pay for the seeds and medicines they have evolved and have used to meet their own needs for nutrition and health care."
- Vandana Shiva, BBC Reith Lecture, 2000.

Across the world, large corporations like Monsanto have been heavily marketing GM plant varieties which are specially engineered to be resistant to the corporation's own herbicides. Farmers are thus compelled into a reliance on the company's pesticides as well. TRIPs grants Monsanto exclusive rights over any of its engineered varieties - making the altered variety a product of the corporation. Farmers are thus not only forced to buy the herbicides, but must pay Monsanto royalties each time seeds are planted, even if they have not been purchased. Monsanto has gained a reputation by suing farmers whose farms contain GM plants growing as weeds (67).

TRIPs also allows biotechnology companies to engage in "biopiracy": patenting indigenous knowledge which in many cases has been used for thousands of years, and ignoring millions of years of evolution that preceded the company's "invention". These patents allow a company to "own" the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities for use in developing new products such as medicines.

Next Section: WTO & the Environment

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