The IP Environment

Before we can understand how intellectual property policies impact the environment and sustainable development, we need to define what those terms mean, and then appreciate the global governance structures through which relevant laws and policies are formulated. So, after appropriate personal introductions and an overview of the course substance and logistics, we’re going to delve into some basic discussion of principles of international law and intellectual property systems. Then we’ll frame the issues interconnected around the environment and sustainable development.

Intro to international law

For some of you, this will be your first foray into international law, or global governance (not the same thing). There are two sorts of international law: public and private. Public international law governs relationships among states. Private international law, however, deals with persons, including legal entities like corporations. The international intellectual property system is a hybrid of these: states agree to ensure their domestic laws provide private rights in accordance with the international standards. If you’re new to international law, start by surfing through the information available hereherehere and here. The last link is the most important. (BTW, I know, those are unorthodox reading assignments for law school, but this is an unorthodox class.)

Intellectual property primer

You may or may not know much about intellectual property issues before taking this course. Those who don’t know anything about IP (and even those who do) will benefit from a primer on the topic. Spend some time surfing through this webpage from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Also, this website from the WTO contains some useful introductory materials on IP and trade for non-specialists. I’ll quickly introduce the key terms and concepts, but then I’ll lead us into a more specific discussion of a few key intellectual property related agreements.

By far the most significant of these is the WTO TRIPs Agreement, which we’ll look closely at throughout the course. Don’t dwell on interpreting every provision; try to get a sense of the big picture. Study the subheadings and look for provisions that jump out at you. We’re going to come back to TRIPs again to analyze specific provisions.

The signing of TRIPs marked a monumental turning point in global IP policy, and much of what we study in this course is a result of or response to it. I’d like us to spend a bit of time talking about how exactly an agreement of this magnitude was reached. That requires us to delve a little into the political economy and international relations. Please read what I think is one of the best summaries of the lead-up to TRIPs, by Peter Drahos, “Global Property Rights in Information: The Story of TRIPS at the GATT.”

As important as TRIPs is, it is really the start not the end of the development of the contemporary global IP framework. In the 20 years since TRIPs, a complex web of interwoven agreements and organizations has emerged. That is what we’ll begin to introduce throughout the remainder of this short course.

Sustainable development

Intellectual property policy has not historically been “framed” as an issue connected to the environment or “sustainable development.” Some people have tried to promote its connections to economic growth, but even if those links were clear (which they are not), growth is not nearly the same thing as sustainable development. Read a little bit about what sustainable development might mean by surfing through this website from the International Institute for Sustainable Development. The key document defining the term is “the Bruntland Report,” titled “Our Common Future,” released by the World Commission on Environment and Development working under the auspices of the United Nations.

Five years after the Brundtland Report, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development met in Brazil and issued the Rio Declaration. This has led to a portfolio of work by the United Nations on sustainable development. During this course, we’re going to learn about the intersections among IP and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and (to a lesser extent) the Forest Principles.

The best primer on these issues I know of is by Matthew Rimmer, Rio+20: Who Owns the Green Economy. Read it.

Governance challenges

Those links will give you a sense of the nature of legal and moral obligations imposed on states when it comes to implementing intellectual property agreements. We’ll also work to understand the nature and function of various international agencies and organizations working in this area. One of the key messages I want to convey throughout our seminar is that studying the global intellectual property system is as much about politics, economics, sociology and other fields as it is about law. Public policies are also intertwined with the business strategies of private sector industrial enterprises. To understand and influence policy formulation in this area, we simply must take an interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approach.

I highly recommend three recent books that do an excellent job of framing international IP as an environmental issue. Read the books and you’ll quickly join the ranks of the world’s most well-informed people on this critical issue.

Our overarching goal for this 1-credit seminar is simply to give you an introduction to the issues canvassed in books like these. With the knowledge acquired during this mini-course, you’ll be able to engage in general legal and policy work in this field, and dive deeper into particular areas as required.