The Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest

2011. Statement of the Congress

The Global Congress on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest, August 25-27, 2011, convened over 180 experts from 32 countries and six continents to help re-articulate the public interest dimension in intellectual property law and policy.  The Washington Declaration is the product of that conversation.

From the Preamble:

Time is of the essence. The last 25 years have seen an unprecedented expansion of the concentrated legal authority exercised by intellectual property rights holders. This expansion has been driven by governments in the developed world and by international organizations that have adopted the maximization of intellectual property control as a fundamental policy tenet. Increasingly, this vision has been exported to the rest of the world.

Over the same period, broad coalitions of civil society groups and developing country governments have emerged to promote more balanced approaches to intellectual property protection. These coalitions have supported new initiatives to promote innovation and creativity, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by new technologies. So far, however, neither the substantial risks of intellectual property maximalism, nor the benefits of more open approaches, are adequately understood by most policy makers or citizens. This must change if the notion of a public interest distinct from the dominant private interest is to be maintained.

The next decade is likely to be determinative. A quarter century of adverse changes in the international intellectual property system are on the cusp of becoming effectively irreversible, at least in the lives of present generations. Intellectual property can promote innovation, creativity and cultural development. But an old proverb teaches that “it is possible to have too much of a good thing,” and that adage certainly applies here. The burden falls on public interest advocates to make a coordinated, evidence-based case for a critical reexamination of intellectual property maximalism at every level of government, and in every appropriate institutional setting, as well as to pursue alternatives that may blunt the force of intellectual property expansionism.

We begin our statement of the Congress’s conclusions with two overarching points:

International intellectual property policy affects a broad range of interests within society, not just those of rights holders. Thus, intellectual property policy making should be conducted through mechanisms of transparency and openness that encourage broad public participation. New rules should be made within the existing forums responsible for intellectual property policy, where both developed and developing countries have full representation, and where the texts of and forums for considering proposals are open. All new international intellectual property standards must be subject to democratic checks and balances, including domestic legislative approval and opportunities for judicial review.

Markets alone cannot be relied upon to achieve a just allocation of information goods — that is, one that promotes the full range of human values at stake in intellectual property systems. This is clear, for example, from recent experiences in the areas of public health and education, where intellectual property has complicated progress toward meeting these basic public needs.

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