WIPO Scandal in Tribune de Geneve: Putin Interest in Patents Cast a Chill

Click here for original article in 18 November 2013 Tribune de Geneve

WIPO’s Director General is in the hot seat. Its budget, which foresaw the opening of an office in Moscow, has been refused.

Alain Jourdan, 18 November, 2013

Francis Gurry, the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), is in deep water. Last September, the Member States refused to vote on the organization’s budget.

In office since 2008, the Australian is paying for his rapprochement with the Russian Federation.  He is being accused in particular of having directly negotiated with Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev the opening of a WIPO regional office in Moscow without previously disclosing its development strategy to the Member States. At least, this is what is being maintained by the Member States. Upon discovering that the budget, which was presented to them a month ago, included lines of credit for future offices in Russia and even China, they rebelled by refusing to endorse the document submitted to them.

Highly Strategic

The refused budget will be resubmitted to them in December. In the meantime, it is unclear as to whether the pressure will subside. However, the situation seems more inclined towards plots and power games. Francis Gurry finds himself in a difficult position as his mandate is about to expire.  The Director General job at WIPO has always been a highly coveted and strategic position. Since it protects innovation, the patent system is at the cutting edge of the great economic challenges of tomorrow. Candidate for a second term, the Australian is now caught between the states that refuse to sign a new blank check and some of the staff-members who have not forgiven him for his heavy-handed approach following the departure of his predecessor, the Sudanese Kamil Idris, a controversial figure who was forced into early retirement. The election of the next Director General of WIPO will take place in March 2014. Candidates have until December 6 to present themselves and run against Francis Gurry. Nigerian Geoffrey Onyeama, Deputy Director General of the organization, has already announced his candidacy. Other candidates could still come out of the woodwork.

Greetings from Russia

For the past two years, a fragrance reminiscent of the Cold War has wafted over WIPO. The activism of Russian advisers and Moscow’s interest in the organization that manages patents has fueled suspicions. Ever since his tête à tête with Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on April 21, 2011, Francis Gurry’s decisions have been closely scrutinized. Several countries were not happy to discover in the newspaper that an agreement confirming the opening of an office in Moscow had been signed in Geneva with Russian representatives in April 2013. Everything appeared to have been ready to go. A meeting between Francis Gurry and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was even scheduled for early October to celebrate the agreement. Rejection of the budget, however, interrupted the festivities. The meeting took place, but the vodka and caviar remain on ice.

In the United States, a group of senators is urging the White House to pull the rug out from under the Australian’s feet. On 19 September, a letter was sent to John Kerry urging him to block the re-election of Francis Gurry. The letter also makes reference to a supply of computer terminals to North Korea and Iran as well as to the persisting “friction” between the Director General of WIPO and one of his deputies, the American Jim Pooley. Russia, China, Iran, North Korea . . . It did not take long for American conservatives to express concern. But they are not alone. Other countries, such as France, have equally raised questions, since other projects are in the works. Iran is also lobbying for the opening of a regional office . . . In the current international context, all these demarches are not insignificant. “There are geopolitical facts that he does not want to take into consideration,” sighs a staff member of WIPO, speaking anonymously.

DNA, Complaints, and Espionage

As Francis Gurry carries on with his decisions, his critics try to bring to the surface any information that could negatively impact his re-election. Among them, an embarrassing case involving DNA sampling. Prior to his election, Francis Gurry had been the target of anonymous letters. Convinced that the letters’ authors were among those within his entourage, the successor of Kamil Idris filed a complaint with the prosecutor in Geneva in October 2007 and surprisingly authorized the police to enter WIPO’s premises to take statements and DNA samples. But the suspected employees later discovered that additional samples had been taken from their offices without their consent and thus illegally. On November 13, an ex-employee – who was made redundant after a corruption allegation of which he has since been cleared – filed a criminal complaint for “slander” with the prosecutor of Geneva. His lawyer sent a letter to the representatives of the Member States informing them that this procedure would require them to vote to lift Francis Gurry’s diplomatic immunity. Atmosphere …

Some of these episodes recall the very turbulent period that preceded Francis Gurry’s inauguration. A period in which no holds were barred, where secret tapings and covert surveillance were the norm. Tapes containing recordings of conversations have been found in the basement, an amateurism contrasting with the issues that confront WIPO today, justifying putting it under very strict oversight.

For now, Member States remain reluctant to bring Francis Gurry down. For diplomats, the operation is complicated. They risk offending Australia and paving the way for a candidate they do not want.

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(Tribune de Geneve sidebar, 18 November 2013)

“Regional offices raise competition”

Francis Gurry, the Director General of WIPO defends his choices and asks to be judged on his merits.

Why has the WIPO budget not been approved ?

Member states have simply not had the time to consider all the points that were on the agenda. The budget presented has not been  rejected. True, it  has yet to be approved.  It is therefore important that it be approved  in December. If not, we will find ourselves in the same situation as the United States. In accordance with our charter, the current budget would be approved, although without access to the increase in income of 3.8% projected for the years 2014-1215.

There are talks of disagreements over the opening of a regional office in Moscow…

In September, the Member States approved the agreement between WIPO and the Russian Federation. But it is true that the issue of the opening of external offices is not yet resolved. There are many reasons. Some fear the outsourcing of services, but we are talking about light representative offices, whose job is to support our services. I think we should put this debate in context. There is fierce competition among those wishing to host these external offices. More than 20 states have submitted applications. South Korea, India, Mexico, Chile, Panama and Peru each want one. This creates tension within the Secretariat of WIPO but also between states.

You stand accused of ignoring geopolitical factors. Is this true ?

Do people say that I have more of a technical reading on geopolitical issues ? Yes, I assume that’s so. WIPO is supposed to develop the system of intellectual property. There are other fora to address issues that are not covered by patenting.

Doesn’t all this controversy harm your prospects for re-election ?

I think the results obtained during the last five years speak for themselves. We signed two new multilateral treaties: the Treaty of Beijing and that of Marrakech. The organization  has fewer staff than it did in 2008 despite a growth in sales of 25%, reflecting an increase in productivity of our services. These results are very positive. If states are objective, the will judge my record positively.

How do you explain the tensions that exist internally?

There is a very tough and agitated minority that makes a lot of noise. These are people who believe that one day they will take power. They do not want to move forward. Their behavior does not reflect reality. The vast majority of WIPO staff are happy.

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