The roots of the World Intellectual Property Organization go back to 1883, when Johannes Brahms was composing his third Symphony, Robert Louis Stevenson was writing Treasure Island, and John and Emily Roebling were completing construction of New York's Brooklyn Bridge.
The need for international protection of intellectual property became evident when foreign exhibitors refused to attend the International Exhibition of Inventions in Vienna in 1873 because they were afraid their ideas would be stolen and exploited commercially in other countries.
1883 marked the birth of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, the first major international treaty designed to help the people of one country obtain protection in other countries for their intellectual creations in the form of industrial property rights, known as:
- inventions (patents)
- industrial designs
The Paris Convention entered into force in 1884 with 14 member states, which set up an International Bureau to carry out administrative tasks, such as organizing meetings of the member States.
In 1886, copyright entered the international arena with the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. The aim of this Convention was to help nationals of its member States obtain international protection of their right to control, and receive payment for, the use of their creative works such as:
- novels, short stories, poems, plays;
- songs, operas, musicals, sonatas; and
- drawings, paintings, sculptures, architectural works.
Like the Paris Convention, the Berne Convention set up an International Bureau to carry out administrative tasks. In 1893, these two small bureaux united to form an international organization called the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property (best known by its French acronym BIRPI). Based in Berne, Switzerland, with a staff of seven, this small organization was the predecessor of the World Intellectual Property Organization of today - a dynamic entity with 187 member states, a staff that now numbers some 1218, from 118 countries around the world, and with a mission and a mandate that are constantly growing.
As the importance of intellectual property grew, the structure and form of the Organization changed as well. In 1960, BIRPI moved from Berne to Geneva to be closer to the United Nations and other international organizations in that city. A decade later, following the entry into force of the Convention Establishing the World Intellectual Property Organization, BIRPI became WIPO, undergoing structural and administrative reforms and acquiring a secretariat answerable to the member States.
In 1974, WIPO became a specialized agency of the United Nations system of organizations, with a mandate to administer intellectual property matters recognized by the member States of the UN.
In 1978, the WIPO Secretariat moved into the headquarters building that has now become a Geneva landmark, with spectacular views of the surrounding Swiss and French countryside.
WIPO expanded its role and further demonstrated the importance of intellectual property rights in the management of globalized trade in 1996 by entering into a cooperation agreement with the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The impetus that led to the Paris and Berne Conventions - the desire to promote creativity by protecting the works of the mind - has continued to power the work of the Organization, and its predecessor, for some 120 years. But the scope of the protection and the services provided have developed and expanded radically during that time.
In 1898, BIRPI administered only four international treaties. Today its successor, WIPO, administers 26 treaties (three of those jointly with other international organizations) and carries out a rich and varied program of work, through its member States and secretariat, that seeks to:
- harmonize national intellectual property legislation and procedures,
- provide services for international applications for industrial property rights,
- exchange intellectual property information,
- provide legal and technical assistance to developing and other countries,
- facilitate the resolution of private intellectual property disputes, and
- marshal information technology as a tool for storing, accessing, and using valuable intellectual property information.