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Opinion: Is WIPO’s Tang right to head in a broader direction?

The new director general wants more focus on economic and societal links, but it raises the question of what an IP office should really be

After 12 years of Francis Gurry, WIPO has a new man at the top – and he seems ready to stamp his authority on the organisation. Speaking at the AIPPI World Congress Online last week, Daren Tang said the time is right to take WIPO in a broader direction. No longer should we view intellectual property as a mere “technical vertical”, he argued, but legal IP rights should connect to economic growth, investment attraction, job creation and social vibrancy.

You only have to look at Tang’s previous work to see this comes as no surprise. As head of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which he led for five years, Tang was instrumental in shifting the office from being an IP registry to an “innovation agency”. One of his major successes was the IP Hub Masterplan, a 10-year project to develop Singapore as a global IP hub in Asia. Among its many measures, the plan targets IP financing and monetisation – hardly typical goals of IP offices.

Tang is certainly not the first person to identify these links with wider concepts. Indeed, in his speech at AIPPI, he referred to an “increasing sense that IP is not just about IP” but about connecting and supporting innovation, and facilitating creativity. This appears to be a nod to other IP offices that see themselves as more than just IP registries; Tang specifically remarked on the USPTO’s tagline of “America’s innovation agency”. And in the trademark world, INTA has for some years been moving away from a purely legal focus, instead homing in on the wider concept of brands.

I’m probably not the only one who feels slightly cynical about these ideas. On the one hand, they can seem like attempts at sexing up IP, for want of a better term. On the other, this glamourisation is no bad thing – who doesn’t want IP to help boost economic growth and improve society, if a higher profile and broader scope can help this? Tang’s noble aims should absolutely be commended, but they do raise questions about the role of an IP office.

If you look at Gurry’s 12-year reign, it’s clear that sound IP administration, multilateralism and a strong financial performance were hallmarks of his tenure. According to a report documenting his achievements, Gurry wrote that WIPO revenues grew almost 50% – from CHF 621 million ($680 million) to CHF 917 million – between 2008-2009 and 2018-2019. Those revenues were helped by rising filings under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and the Madrid System, although fees are unchanged since 2008.

It has to be said that these features tally closely with the functions listed in the WIPO Convention, the treaty establishing the office. Of course, no one is suggesting Tang won’t continue WIPO’s core focus. In his AIPPI speech, he specifically said that IP filings and the normative agenda will continue to be important – and when he began work on October 1, he namechecked governance and financial management.

However, his vision for WIPO does represent something of a break from the past. Many will feel excited about these new goals, laid out by the first DG picked from outside the organisation, and one with bags of enthusiasm if the AIPPI speech is anything to go by. Others still will be wary; they may even wonder why Tang cannot go further than Gurry and reduce PCT and Madrid fees amid growing revenues. I don’t think the new vision will lead to a split of epic proportions, but it will raise questions and possibly grumbles, and Tang will need to be prepared for these diplomatic battles.

In spite of these potential challenges, there is much to be hopeful about during Tang’s tenure. At AIPPI he identified the lack of IP awareness, particularly among developing countries, as an area of concern. He said WIPO must bring the IP message to the “man on the street”. This is absolutely spot on. IP understanding and awareness is poor in many countries, quite often because governments – in spite of IP offices’ best efforts – don’t take it seriously enough. You only have to look at major IP hubs like the UK, which has a revolving door of IP ministers, to see that there is lots of work to be done.    

Tang has six years to make his vision a reality. I suspect there will be lots of debate along the way. 

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