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Francis Gurry: Building a very modern WIPO

When representatives of WIPO member states met in Beijing last month and signed a treaty, it was the first significant international IP agreement in 15 years.

Gurry still believes WIPO can agree one international treaty every year

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry is reinvigorating IP harmonisation one small step at a time.

The Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances can best be described as a tying-up of loose ends that remained after the two WIPO copyright treaties of 1996. WIPO Director General Francis Gurry explained at the time: "The Beijing Treaty will enable performers to interact with greater confidence with the digital environment. It will remedy a widely perceived injustice of the unequal treatment of audiovisual performances, compared to musical performances, at the multilateral level."

That may not sound much. But the fact that a treaty could be signed at all represents great progress since the early years of this century, when international negotiations were frozen, WIPO was embroiled in controversy and governments were looking to bilateral and multilateral deals rather than international harmonisation. Post-TRIPs, there was an apparently unbridgeable divide between the developed (north) and developing (south) world, which encompassed sensitive topics such as access to medicines, traditional knowledge and geographical indications. Meanwhile, WIPO's then director general, Kamil Idris, was criticised over his financial arrangements and had to retire early in 2007.

"The fact that a treaty could be signed at all represents great progress"

Francis Gurry, elected by the narrowest of margins in 2008, realised that his biggest task would be to restore credibility by building consensus. Interviewed by Managing IP soon after being appointed, he said his number one priority would be "reengaging or engaging WIPO in the many challenges that exist as a result of the changing environment for IP in the world".

He also realised that the IP world today is very different from that of a generation ago, when debates were confined to academics, lawyers and judges. WIPO, like other international institutions, is now a playground for commercial lobbyists, non-governmental organisations and charities. These have been prominent in recent debates, covering topics such as access to copyrighted materials for visually impaired persons.

The Organization is increasingly aware of the world beyond the IP cognoscenti. It aims to develop broader understanding with more sophisticated economic and social analysis: one of Gurry's first decisions was to appoint a chief economist. And, on another level, it promotes popular awareness through events such as the annual World IP Day. Notably, the build up to Beijing featured contributions from actors such as Javier Bardem and Meryl Streep.

An Australian, Gurry joined WIPO back in 1985 having previously practised law and written on IP and international relations. He held various positions at the Organization before getting the top job, including being responsible for the PCT and setting up the Arbitration and Mediation Center and the UDRP system, which has now handled some 25,000 domain name disputes. So he brought to the role of director general both a real understanding of what could be achieved, and a good sense of the challenges that would have to be overcome.

Those challenges will only increase, as the internet and social media enable more and more stakeholders to contribute to debates about IP rights. Those debates are not always pretty or fruitful from the point of view of IP owners (see SOPA and ACTA) but they can no longer be avoided. Despite the challenges, Gurry remains optimistic, arguing: "The media attention is an expression of society getting it and a growing consciousness of the value of intangibles, and the fact that rights over knowledge are of fundamental importance for society. This is very positive. The additional interest makes possible the engagement of member states."

For that reason, he believes that WIPO can build on the Beijing success, and even goes so far as to predict that member states can agree more treaties – at the rate of one a year. Areas where work is already underway include design procedures, broadcasting, visually impaired persons and even the area that was once seen as intractable – traditional knowledge.

Further reading:

Gurry narrowly wins WIPO vote (June 2008)
The most important man in IP (October 2008)
WIPO General Assemblies at a glance (September 2011)
Interview: a new era for WIPO (April 2012)
WIPO's copyright deal (June 2012)

Follow WIPO on twitter and visit Flickr for pictures, YouTube for videos and Scribd for publications. World IP Day has a Facebook page

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