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Who wants to be an IP leader?

Controversy surrounds two of the most important jobs in IP. That threatens the future stability and development of the IP system, and has an impact on everyone

Geneva and Washington: two cities divided by 4,000 miles but united by political failings. This week, WIPO member states meeting in Switzerland failed to agree a budget (among other things) at the General Assemblies while in the United States the government shutdown is now into its fourth day, and is inevitably having an impact on IP activities, including at the Copyright Office and the ITC.

Against this backdrop, there is controversy over the leadership of both WIPO and the USPTO.

Iran shipments

As we reported last month, Francis Gurry intends to stand for a second term as WIPO director-general. Since then, one other candidate has emerged from Nigeria, so there will be a contest. In the meantime, a group of US politicians has written to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to oppose Gurry’s reelection. Their objections relate to allegations that WIPO supplied computer equipment to North Korea and Iran, breaching US sanctions.

Readers will form their own views about whether their concerns have merits, and of course all of us understand that Iran in particular is a highly sensitive issue in the United States (despite a recent thawing in relations). But I think the members of Congress need to be careful here. Unless they have a strong alternative to propose, Gurry is likely to be their best ally among potential candidates for the WIPO job. They might regret dethroning him, if that is what they achieve.

Gurry is respected for his knowledge of IP and is well known among experienced practitioners and IP groups. Challengers will almost certainly bring different ideas about IP development. When the time comes, member states will choose the candidate that best represents their interests. Unless a surprise contender emerges, I would be astonished if the US prefers someone other than Gurry.

Vacancy in Alexandria

A harsh response to the members of Congress who wrote the letter might be: get your own house in order first. It’s now nearly a year since David Kappos announced he would leave the USPTO, and there’s no sign of a successor. In the meantime, Teresa Stanek Rea has also resigned, meaning the top two jobs at the Office need to be filled. From what we hear, IP circles in Washington are buzzing with rumours about who has been contacted/interviewed/offered the job/turned it down.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that the role as things stand is not very attractive. As well as the usual downsides of public service – the relatively low pay, the long approval process and the possibility that your term of office will be ended by the electorate – there are new disincentives, namely that your role in policy making is being curtailed by the activity of the White House and other government agencies, many of the senior roles at the Office are already filled, and there is continuing frustration over budget.

The difficulties over the WIPO and USPTO heads are not of course directly related to the political problems described above. But at times like this the IP world needs strong leadership; and that will not come if there continues to be unwarranted political interference.

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