A Balancing Act: WIPO’s Role in the Global IP System

Daren Tang took over as Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) less than two years ago, but has already made a mark, as Peter Scott finds out.

“What we need to do is to recapture the excitement about the system; we need to make people fall in love with IP again, right? ”
Daren Tang, WIPO (Switzerland)

One could say that Director General Daren Tang exemplifies “firsts.” He is the first director general of WIPO from Asia. He is the first to have taken the job after previously heading a national IP office (Chief Executive of the IP Office of Singapore from 2015 to 2020), and indeed, he is the first to have come into the role from outside of WIPO or its predecessor, the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property. And, of course, he is the first to have taken up the post during a global pandemic.

It is no surprise then, that Mr. Tang has brought new perspectives to WIPO, the Switzerland-based United Nations agency, both in terms of the organization’s place in the world and its culture and working practices. These changes are mirrored and accelerated by changes in the world at large, some of them positive for intellectual property (IP), some of them not.

On the latter, he identified several key issues posing challenges to the global IP system. Perhaps most difficult for WIPO itself is that in recent years “the multilateral environment has become extremely challenging,” Mr. Tang said. “It’s a lot harder now to get consensus on anything, even on technical matters, and it’s a lot harder to bring all the member states together to be able to agree to norms.”

According to Mr. Tang, this is not a problem limited to WIPO, but one that affects all UN agencies. What it means is that the organization needs to “make a lot more effort to bring people together to arrive at consensus on treaties.”

This challenge of multilateralism has practical effects too, he observed. “When member states find it difficult to come together and to agree on norms and rules and standards, it slows our ability to react to what’s going on, it slows down opportunities for us to create the rules that are able to service the businesses and the creators and innovators out there.”

While Mr. Tang assesses the IP system as having strong foundations, he noted that “as we slow down the ability to react fast, our ability to service the future trends and future innovation in such dynamic areas as we’re all in may be affected.”

He said he plans to step up the organization’s efforts “to bring people together to come and talk because even if something can’t move multilaterally, we can move it regionally, we can move it bilaterally.”

“The view is that the IP system only helps to benefit the biggest countries and economies … It’s a misperception. ”

Speaking the Right Language

Another major challenge Mr. Tang identified is “IP skepticism,” both in developing and developed countries, especially among younger people.

“The view is that the IP system only helps to benefit the biggest companies, and the biggest economies,” he said. “People tend to see IP as a way for rich people to get richer or for big companies to get bigger. And I think that’s wrong. It’s a misperception.”

Allied to that, he added, “even if developing countries and emerging economies are seeing IP more and more as part of their story, it’s still seen as such a technical matter. It is seen as intimidating. It’s seen as very distant.”

In Mr. Tang’s view, the task for WIPO is to work hard to change the perception, not by giving up being technical, but by reaching out to “the creators, the artists, the innovators, the researchers, so they feel that it is part of their story, they’re part of the journey as well.”

“We need to be able to be bilingual,” he said, “which means that we need to be able to talk to each other, fellow IP experts and specialists in a technical way. But we need to grow the skills and the confidence to speak about IP in a very down-to-earth layman’s way, depending on the community, whether it’s small business owners or startups or even our parents and our friends.” There are two big strands to how WIPO is trying to do that in practice. The first is about communication.

Mr. Tang noted that since he came on board, he has worked with WIPO’s news and media team to transform the way the organization communicates about WIPO’s work. This includes using social media in a much bigger way, reaching out to young people in the channels that they are familiar with. For example, he has challenged the team to post on Tik Tok in the next year in the proposed “down-to-earth way.”

“So what we have done is that instead of talking about the technical aspects of IP, we are telling stories about IP or telling people about how it has changed the lives of this community, or changed the lives of these entrepreneurs,” he explained.

On social media, WIPO is using 90-second or 60-second videos “that have substance, but are able to communicate knowledge and touch people’s hearts as well,” Mr. Tang continued. “What we need to do is to recapture the excitement about the system; we need to make people fall in love with IP again, right? And the way to do that is to be able to communicate about IP in a very different way, in ways and channels that they understand.”

Then, secondly, there is the “bottom up” approach to IP promotion, working on small local projects around the world to encourage IP awareness and champion the idea that “IP can be very powerful for jobs, for investments, for business growth, for economic and social development,” Mr. Tang said.

One example is in Uganda, where WIPO has been working with an NGO on the ground, Grooming a Successful Woman with Intellectual Mind, to help women entrepreneurs use IP as part of their business strategy.

“These may not be businesses that are going to be filing patents or creating trade secrets,” he said. “But they’ve got a great brand, they’ve got a great product, they want to put the product into the region, they want to put it into other parts of Africa, or they want to sell it across borders.

“And we tell them that to do that you need to have a trademark strategy. If you don’t have a trademark strategy, and you’re trying to franchise your brand you’re asking for trouble. So, in this very practical, down-to-earth way we’re helping them to look at it from a business perspective.”

The goal, Mr. Tang observed, is not just to help those entrepreneurs, but to win “conversant ambassadors” for IP. “And then they become the people who go to their ministers or go to the IP offices and say, ‘Look, IP is important. It is part of my journey as a woman entrepreneur in the developing country. Please raise IP standards, please take it seriously.’”

Inclusivity at Home and Abroad

For WIPO, the work of promoting and securing IP in the world goes hand in hand with diversity, equity, and inclusion. This year’s World IP Day, which took place on April 26, focused on IP and Youth: Innovating for a Better Future, and Mr. Tang noted, “It’s part of a larger effort to build a more inclusive IP ecosystem.”

“[In reaching out to young people,] we are laying the foundations too so that they understand that IP is part of their journey as well, so that they can then become, again, our ambassadors, our allies, our supporters, and break this stereotype that IP is only for the Global North, not for the Global South,” he said.

“We think that IP is working very well but for a small group of people, and we now need to promote the benefits of IP to a much larger group of people. So, what are we focusing on? We’re focusing on women, we’re focusing on youth, we’re focusing on small- and medium-sized enterprises.”

There are plans to do much more in this area. To that end, and marking another first, Mr. Tang has appointed WIPO’s first IP and gender champion: Lisa Jorgensen, Deputy Director General (DDG), Patents and Technology Sector, WIPO (Switzerland).

Ms. Jorgensen is the first woman DDG in charge of this sector, which traditionally is very male dominated, and she recently recruited someone into a new team to look at IP and gender issues.

“So, watch this space,” Mr. Tang said. “We’re going to be doing a lot more work in this area, and in terms of broader forms of diversity, we are going to engage with the underserved and underprivileged in the global IP system. And a lot of it revolves around reaching out to Indigenous communities. Why? Because we think that they had a difficult relationship with IP historically.”

Recent projects of this nature include working with the Brazilian government to support a community in the Amazon to use IP rights to bring traditional products to the world and launching a project in the Oaxaca region of Mexico to support a traditional silk weaving community.

“Instead of talking about the technical aspects of IP, we are telling stories about how it has changed lives.”

Measures of Success

Of course, WIPO’s core task is to promote and administer international IP treaties and agreements. On this score, the metrics have been positive, even during the two years of the pandemic.

Patent Cooperation Treaty filings rose by 1 percent in 2021 and 1.6 percent in 2020. This is “not stellar growth, but quite in line with historical trends,” Mr. Tang noted.

In addition, Madrid System trademark filings, following a slight dip in 2020, grew by 14 percent in 2021; while filings for designs increased by 20.8 percent, after a modest decrease in 2020. National IP offices are seeing similar trends, he observed.

“I think what’s happening is that innovation, the creative economy, things related to IP rights have proven to be extremely resilient in not just one part of the world,” he said.

He noted that that 7 out of 10 global IP rights are now being filed outside of North America and Europe. “That’s very exciting for me,” he said, “and I think it’s going to be exciting for our readers as well.”

WIPO will have a large presence at INTA’s Annual Meeting Live+ in Washington, D.C., and Mr. Tang encouraged those who want to know more about the agency’s work to connect with WIPO staff during the Meeting.

In terms of the workings of the organization itself, Mr. Tang is keen to change the culture in line with WIPO’s emphasis on innovation worldwide.

“We try to be a bit like a startup culture,” he said. “My colleagues need to go out there, take the initiative, sense what’s going on. They need to be able to take calculated risks, to push the boundaries to come up with new ideas and new initiatives. That’s the kind of culture that we need to build.”

However, he cautioned, “This won’t happen overnight. The culture here has been here for a long time. But I think we’re fully committed to make this happen.”

On development work, success at WIPO, like any UN agency, is measured in the form of Key Performance Indicators in the short to medium term, though Mr. Tang acknowledged that some of his aspirations have rather longer-term horizons. Personally, he hopes his tenure at WIPO will be defined by whether he can lay the foundations to achieve his central goal.

“When any innovator or creator in the world thinks about a great idea and wants to be able to transform the idea into reality, I don’t want them to think about WIPO. Instead, I want them to know that the IP system is there to help them and to be part of that journey. That’s my dream,” Mr. Tang said.

“And WIPO can be behind the scenes, helping that member state, that government agency, or that public-private partnership to make that happen. I’d be quite happy with that.”

Footage used under license from Adobe Stock / kinomaster

Saturday, April 30, 2022

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