WIPO: the IP Office of the future

The covid-19 pandemic began as a health crisis but has had a longer and deeper impact on our economies and societies than anyone could have anticipated.

In these difficult times, it is important to remember that this is not the only global upheaval that the IP community has had to face since the creation of the global IP ecosystem in the late nineteenth century. Instead, as WTR’s fifth IP Office Innovation Ranking highlights, many IP offices worldwide have used the crisis as an opportunity to digitalise their services, revamp their work processes and reimagine their purpose.

This dynamism among IP offices aligns well with data demonstrating that innovative and creative sectors in the global economy are showing strong resilience in the face of the greatest economic contraction in recent history.

Unlike in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the volume of IP filings continues to grow around the world. In 2020, global trademark applications increased by 13.7% to over 17 million. Design applications rose by 2% to 1.3 million and patent applications by 1.6% to just under 3.3 million. Globally, there are 64.4 million trademarks, 15.9 million patents and 4.8 million designs in force – the highest ever.

This growth is not confined to certain regions of the world but is increasingly a global trend.

A decade ago, five in 10 IP applications were made in Asia. Last year, this number was close to seven in 10. Northeast Asia, comprising the powerhouses of China, Japan and Korea, is driving this growth, but other areas of the world are also emerging as engines of IP-related activity. For example, in 2020, Iran became the world’s third-largest recipient of trademark applications, behind China and the United States. Moreover, Iran’s 540,000 trademark applications surpassed those of the European Union by 100,000. Meanwhile, India overtook Japan to take fifth place with 425,000 trademark applications received.

In a broader context, while European and North American countries continue to hold many of the top spots in WIPO’s Global Innovation Index (GII), other economies including India, Turkey, the Philippines and Vietnam show the most consistent improvements over the last decade.

These developments are quietly causing a seismic shift in asset creation from tangible to intangible assets. In 1975, 80% of the value of the S&P 500 was in hard assets – commodities, resources, products and real property. Yet, in today’s global economy dominated by technology and digitalisation, intangible assets now make up 90% of the value of the S&P 500. Across the Pacific, almost half of the number of companies on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange have more than 80% of their value in intangible assets. In fact, it is estimated that global intangible asset value is worth about $40 trillion dollars - more than the US and Chinese economies combined.

This is a world where intellectual property is emerging as a key asset and innovation is becoming more critical to economic success. As such, IP offices are also evolving. They no longer see themselves as passive recipients of IP applications and mere repositories of IP information. Rather, many have embarked on their own transformation journeys to become innovation catalysts, working to support the development of the innovation and creative ecosystems of their countries and regions.

Figure 5. Global distribution of trademark applications - 2020 by continent

As the first director general of WIPO to come from a national IP office, I am truly excited by these developments and the innovative spirit of my fellow director generals. WIPO is fully aligned with the changes taking place, and we too have embarked on a new chapter of our growth.

At our general assembly in October 2021, member states endorsed our new five-year medium-term strategic plan. First, we will reinforce WIPO’s traditional areas of strength as the provider of global IP services, the forum for setting IP rules and standards, and the convener of the international IP community. Second, we will step up our efforts to help all countries use intellectual property as a powerful catalyst for job creation, investments, business growth, economic growth and social development.

To fulfil these aims, we hope to work with all IP offices and the global IP community in three distinct areas.

Making intellectual property relevant to everyone, everywhere

A fundamental challenge for all of us in the global IP community is connecting our work and mission with a broader and more diverse range of stakeholders. Rather than engaging with fellow IP experts and specialists only, we must make a much stronger effort to make intellectual property relevant at the grassroots level. We should also strive to make the IP system more inclusive, so that we not only address the inaccurate perception that intellectual property is an obstacle to social outcomes, but also make it relevant to everyone, everywhere.

One concrete example is with women. Despite steady progress in recent years, women still make up fewer than one in five inventors listed in Patent Cooperation Treaty applications. At the current pace of change, gender parity in patent applications will not be achieved until 2058.

Leaving out women innovators means excluding the innovative potential of half of humankind, in a world where we need more innovations than ever to overcome our common challenges. For this reason, it is vital that we work together to scale up our collective efforts to make intellectual property more inclusive for all. Earlier this year, I joined heads of IP offices from Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica and Chile to launch the Latin America network on intellectual property and gender. Already other IP offices are participating in this network, and we hope to encourage similar movements in other parts of the world as well.

WIPO also plans to spend more time and effort reaching out to young people, who are not only future innovators and creators but make up a large proportion in developing regions like Africa, where 65% of the population is below the age of 30. Young people around the world are increasingly comfortable with technology and the digital world, and we need to make them feel that intellectual property is a tool that can help them reach their aspirations.

Therefore, next year’s World IP Day will centre on the theme of “IP and youth – innovating the future together”. Additionally, WIPO has recently launched our inaugural Young Experts Programme, with the aim of bringing talented young professionals from all over the world to spend two years in WIPO and to give them exposure and training in intellectual property and administrative matters, in order to develop the next generation of global IP leaders.

Lastly, we will make a stronger push to support SMEs. SMEs play a critical role in the global economy, accounting for 90% of all companies in the world, employing 70% of the global labour force and generating up to half of global GDP. And yet, a recent study by the European Patent Office (EPO) and the EUIPO found that only 9% of SMEs in the European region are using intellectual property to grow their business. It is highly likely that this figure is the same, or lower, in other regions of the world.

To address this, WIPO is committed to stepping up the support we provide to SMEs. Raising awareness is one aspect of this approach. This year’s World IP Day focused on the theme of “SMEs – taking your ideas to market”. We are developing a range of initiatives supporting SMEs to identify and leverage their intellectual property successfully. These include the recent launch of a new IP diagnostics tool in November, which enables SMEs to identify their IP assets and how they can be used strategically to spur business growth.

Helping intangible assets produce tangible results

While we in the global IP community know that intellectual property is a powerful intangible asset, it can appear very abstract and technical for those unfamiliar with it. Moreover, there is sometimes scepticism towards intellectual property among the general public – a sense that intellectual property is only for certain enterprises and economies. That is why, beyond communication and engagement, WIPO aims to work closely with IP offices on projects that can deliver tangible results on the ground.

Take climate change: the transition to a green global economy requires not only innovative new ideas, but their rapid deployment across different industries and economic sectors in all regions of the world. While there is no shortage of brilliant minds hard at work developing sustainable solutions and transformative technologies, the deployment and diffusion of these innovations cannot always keep pace with the scale and urgency of the challenge at hand.

WIPO GREEN is a technology-matching platform that serves to bridge the gap between providers of green technologies and those seeking green solutions. Beyond this, WIPO is now taking steps, through WIPO GREEN’s acceleration projects, to bring support and expertise on a particular industry or area. For example, our latest project is focused on the Indonesia palm oil sector. In conjunction with our partners, WIPO GREEN is working with palm oil mills to assess their needs and broker contact with technology providers so that they can work together to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

Moving from the usual mode of organising seminars to finding impact-driven projects on the ground represents an important shift from our usual way of working. WIPO’s programme on women entrepreneurs and intellectual property in the least developed countries is a powerful example of what this looks like in practice. Working intensively with an NGO on the ground, this programme began in Uganda and involved mentoring a group of female entrepreneurs on how intellectual property can help their business to grow.

Caroline Matovu is one of them. She is the brains behind Trion, a homemade detergent that quickly proved a safe and effective way of sanitising hospital wards and school corridors as Uganda mobilised against the pandemic. With WIPO’s support, an individual action plan was created for Caroline, with a focus on issues such as business registration and trademark filing. As a result of this, she is now pursuing a trademark to underpin the quality of her product as she works to take her business to the next level.

Our work is transforming even in the traditional area of treaty accession. We regard the act of joining a treaty as the beginning of our journey with the member state in question, rather than the end. For example, the Marrakesh Treaty, which aims to introduce a standard set of limitations and exceptions to copyright rules in order to permit reproduction, distribution and the making available of published works in accessible forms.

Yet treaty obligations by themselves are insufficient. WIPO has therefore established the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) – a partnership with the World Blind Union, publishers, libraries and other stakeholders – to help create books in accessible formats. These now number over 600,000 and continue to grow. From assisting the progress of blind and visually impaired children in their education, to creating new career opportunities for people in the community, the ABC project transforms the legal obligations of the Marrakesh Treaty into real results.

The future work of WIPO will therefore focus on how we can work to make intangible assets produce tangible results for our entrepreneurs, enterprises, economies and communities.

Scaling up through partnerships

As we seek to leverage our work in this direction, we at WIPO are acutely conscious that our overarching objectives can only be achieved by harnessing our existing partnerships and by forging new ones. In this increasingly complex and interdependent world, we have to work together.

IP offices understand this well. Since they are critical to the growth and development of their countries, they must work together with many other agencies and stakeholders in order for intellectual property to be deployed effectively across the country.

At the global level, the challenges that we face require different international agencies to work collaboratively together. For these reasons, WIPO met with the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation in June 2021 to pool our trilateral expertise and develop a series of practical measures to support economies and societies combat covid-19 and rebuild.

Likewise, as our work broadens to include IP commercialisation and support for the use of intellectual property in bringing an idea to the market, we are committed to developing new partnerships with chambers of commerce and other national and regional business organisations. Through them, we will deepen our engagement with local SMEs around the world. Consequently, we are collaborating with partners such as the International Chamber of Commerce to pilot projects in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam to link SMEs more closely to the IP system.

Looking ahead there is also greater scope for increased coordination between IP offices, and WIPO will continue playing a role as a convenor and forum for such discussions.

An example of this is the Heads of IP Office Conference (or HIPOC) organised by WIPO in the Asia-Pacific region. These conferences bring together the heads of IP offices in an environment that encourages open sharing of best practices and common challenges. As a previous attendee of the HIPOC, I found it useful and inspiring to hear stories from others, and it also helped to build strong relations and bonhomie among the IP office community. WIPO now seeks to bring the HIPOC concept to other regions too.

At the operations level, WIPO intends to aid IP offices in grappling with challenges, including increased IP filings and the use of new technologies such as AI and blockchain. We hope that through these conversations, and in forums such as the WIPO Committee for Standards, IP offices will coordinate the standards through which IP applications are prosecuted, as well as those relating to how their data and IT systems talk to one another, increasing their inter-operability.

Through our more broadly framed conversations on IP and frontier technologies, we hope to bring member states together to share how cutting-edge technologies like AI are affecting their operations, providing opportunities to transform their services and raising difficult policy issues. As a result, we can learn from one another and find a way forward together on some of the more difficult common challenges, like AI inventorship.

Looking ahead

The current state of our world is challenging, but it also presents opportunities for the global IP community to step up to the plate and transform not just themselves, but the way the world looks at intellectual property. As IP offices, we are proud to serve inventors, innovators and creators and therefore it is entirely appropriate that we ourselves are innovative, dynamic and forward-looking agencies,

WIPO thanks WTR for highlighting and showcasing the most enterprising and interesting developments at the IP offices level. We stand ready to work with all IP offices on their journeys of transformation in this fast-changing world.

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