2020 Address of the Director General

WIPO Assemblies – September 21 to 25, 2020

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Your Excellency Ambassador Omar Zniber, Chair, WIPO General Assembly,

Mr. Daren Tang, Director General Elect,

Your Excellencies the Permanent Representatives and Ambassadors,

Distinguished Delegates,

It is a great pleasure for me to join the Chair of the WIPO General Assembly in extending a warm welcome to all delegations to the 2020 Assemblies, which are taking place in the challenging and unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I thank all delegations that have been able to be present physically for their presence, as well as all those who are connected to the meeting in various parts of the world for their attention.

I am delighted that the Director General Elect, Mr. Daren Tang, has joined us for the opening session.  As you all know, Daren Tang takes over as Director General next week, after months of dedicated preparation since his appointment in May.  I wish him every success in his tenure, which I am sure will be an outstanding one that leads the Organization forward in every way.

I should like to thank the Chair of the General assembly, Ambassador Omar Zniber, for his close attention to the Organization and hard work over the past twelve months in the many meetings and consultations that he has led to ensure that these Assemblies could take place and could achieve whatever was possible in the restrictive and difficult conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equally, I should like to take the opportunity to thank the outgoing Chair of the WIPO Coordination Committee, Ambassador François Rivasseau of France, and to congratulate him on successfully shepherding the process for the nomination of the new Director General.  I also thank the many chairs of the Organization’s other bodies, committees and working groups for their tremendous efforts and dedication in taking the work of the Organization forward.

Now let me turn to the business of these Assemblies.  As I shall be leaving office in ten days, please allow me to start with a few words about the progress of the Organization over the past 12 years.  I shall then deal briefly with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the operations of the Organization and, finally, please permit me to air one or two reflections of a more general nature.

Starting with the past 12 years, I must say that it has been the consistent experience of my life that, when I am on the point of finishing a job, I feel for the first time qualified to start it.  That, of course, has not been very good news for my employers.  Despite this inconvenience, the Organization has been able to prosper and to thrive in the past 12 years.  I have prepared a very detailed written report on all the developments in the Organization, which is available outside the meeting hall.  I will not enter into the details here, but I believe that all stakeholders and the many contributors to the Organization’s operations, starting with the Member States, have reason to be pleased with the progress that the Organization has achieved as a result of a collective effort.

It has been a period of growth and expansion that may be measured by a number of different indicators.  The Organization’s Global IP Systems have extended their geographical reach and have considerably grown their user bases throughout the world.  There has been record buy-in to the treaties administered by the Organization, with over 400 new accessions to those treaties, the majority coming from developing and least developed countries.  Two new treaties, the Beijing and Marrakesh Treaties, have been concluded and have entered into force.  A third, the Lisbon Agreement, has been substantially revised and the new Act reflecting the revision, the Geneva Act, has also entered into force. 

The financial situation of the Organization has flourished, with consistent surpluses enabling the Organization to be debt-free and to build the net assets, now some CHF 364 million, beyond the target-level set by the Member States.  At the same time, fees under the Global IP Systems that are the source of the revenue of the Organization have remained constant.

The development dimension has been mainstreamed and the Development Agenda has been advanced from a series of recommendations to concrete implementation in many areas.  We have built a number of successful public-private partnerships that contribute in various ways to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

We have added new programs and services, such as IT platforms, databases and services that have been embraced across the world, and economic analysis, the Global Innovation Index and statistical and data analytics.

We have renovated the campus, with the addition of two major buildings that were delivered on time and on budget. 

The Organization has also embraced digital transformation, with all externally facing services operating on electronic platforms and all administrative and management procedures digitized.

The year 2020 has been a challenging year for the whole world, as everyone is aware, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing widespread suffering and economic and social disruption.  For WIPO, the negative impact has, so far, been, relatively speaking, limited.  Thanks to the embrace of digital transformation, the Global IP Services were able to continue to function at near maximum levels during the lockdown through remote working.  The two areas that have been adversely affected are the normative committees and meetings, in general, and development cooperation, both obviously affected by travel restrictions and social distancing measures.  My colleagues have made major efforts to maintain communications with Member States throughout the world to reduce the negative impact.  Inevitably, however, full operating capacity has been reduced in these areas.

In contrast, up until now, the financial position of the Organization has not been adversely affected.  We are running a strong surplus for the first eight months of 2020.  This is a consequence of the underlying performance of our Global IP Systems, which have remained remarkably resilient, with demand increased within the PCT, the major source of revenue, and not yet badly affected in our other systems.  While we know that the impact of an economic downturn on the PCT is usually delayed because international applications under the PCT usually reflect activity at the national level a year earlier, the relatively positive results and resilience is, nevertheless, somewhat surprising. 

While understanding the evolution of demand in our Global IP Systems over the coming months and years is obviously of fundamental importance to planning, budgeting and management, it would be a speculative exercise at this stage to attempt to explain what is happening.  We are in close contact with the countries that are the major sources of filings.  The situation in those countries is not inconsistent with our own at this stage.  There are several possible explanatory factors that we have been considering, although these are, as I have said, speculative at this stage.

One factor to consider is that the IP filings have, over the course of the past ten years, consistently out-performed the world economy in growth.  Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that they should under-perform the world economy in rates of decline from recession, reflecting the general economic and policy emphasis on technology as a source of competitive advantage and growth.  The changing geography of the main sources of demand for international IP filings may also be in play.  Asia has been on the rise in the relative share of filings, now accounting for over 50% of all PCT applications.   Preliminary data on PCT filings from China in 2020 indicate a sharp increase in the first six months of 2020, and this comes on what was already the largest single volume or source of PCT applications. 

Despite the relatively good performance in 2020, vigilance is certainly the order of the day.  It is hard to imagine that the Organization will be able to go through 2021 unscathed, but we are in a sound financial position to weather the storm.

On the management and policy side of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can see that teleworking has worked and that it is likely to be a permanent feature of the human resource management landscape in the future.  Eighty per cent of the nearly 1,000 staff who have returned to the workplace have chosen the teleworking option, which allows remote working for three days out of five, as part of their re-integration to the workplace.  There will be many adjustments to be made in management and policy if this indeed turns out to be part of the new reality.

In program terms, the durability of the crisis requires, I believe, that Member States re-imagine the meeting.  This may require investment in better virtual platforms, greater emphasis on preparations and discussions before the holding of meetings and, eventually, tinkering with some procedures.  There has been resistance to this direction, but we need to consider carefully how long it is likely to be before travel and national health measures are eased so that all parts of the world would be able to travel to Geneva for meetings without restrictions.  The answer seems to be a long time.  Pending that, in many respects the normative agenda remains at a standstill, while technology continues to advance at an increasing pace, inevitably throwing up questions and issues that may require attention.

Now, let me turn to one or two observations of a more general nature.  It is clear that technology and, in particular, the Internet, and the platforms, business models and businesses built upon it, has connected the world in ways that are qualitatively different from anything that we have ever seen before.  In 2020, there are around 3.5 billion smartphone users worldwide.  There are some 4 billion email users and around 306 billion emails are sent everyday worldwide, about 55% of them, incidentally, being spam.  Global mobile messaging apps experience similarly large volumes of traffic.  There are about two billion active users of WhatsApp and 1.2 billion users of WeChat.  Facebook has about 2.7 billion monthly active users.  I could multiply the examples and broaden the indicators to other areas that show how economic, social and cultural life are all connected worldwide.  It is absolutely clear that the world is more connected than it has ever been and probably more open and transparent.

But against this development of connection, there is a counter-current.  There are increasing signs of closure in the world.  Foreign direct investment has plummeted, protectionism has risen, global value chains are being dismantled or re-organized, and foreign investment screening conditions have tightened.  These are not trends caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  They emerged before the pandemic, but, of course, the measures of restriction necessitated by health management have accelerated the trends. 

So we are in the position in which the logic of technological development is pitted against the movement of policy geopolitically.  On the basis of history, I would be surprised if, in the long run, technology did not prevail.

There are few, if any, examples of reversing fundamental technology that has taken root in the fabric of the economy, society and cultural life. 

There are many risks associated with the collision of these two currents, ranging from the separation of peoples from governments to the disruption of economic and social life.  In view of the global nature of both currents, there seems to be only one way in which the two currents may be guided into a peaceful confluence.  That way is through international cooperation that is global in nature or, in other words, multilateralism. 

We are all aware that the appetite or the capacity for such multilateral action is regrettably diminished at the moment.   The reconstruction of this appetite or capacity, with the inevitable changes in architecture that it may entail, is one of the major challenges that confronts the world in the coming years and decades.  I am not going to enter into the exceptionally complex task that such a reconstruction involves.  Suffice it to say that the task is a long and difficult one and that the risks of failure take us into unknown and perilous waters.  It involves almost every dimension of policy, including security, personal and political freedoms, market and competition supervision, tax authority, the integrity of information and data and the conduct of social and cultural life. 

Intellectual property is very much part of these policy challenges.  It has historically been a vector of international connections, a means of trading and consuming intellectual and cultural assets.  We have seen emerge, over the past two decades, global markets or audiences for music, audiovisual and literary works, scientific publications and technologies built upon different business models, most of which rely on digital connectivity.  The process of adjustment to the new world that has been, and is being, built on the direction of technology is an extraordinarily complex and difficult one that requires the goodwill of all Member States.  I am hopeful that, in the small world of intellectual property, WIPO will be able to continue to make a contribution to this adjustment.

I should like now to express my gratitude to many people for the assistance and support that they have provided over the past 12 years.  I start with the Member States and thank them for their engagement in, and support for, the Organization and, especially, for their indulgence of inevitable imperfections.  In particular, I thank the Government of Australia for having nominated me to the post of Director General and for its support over the years.

I thank all the staff.  We are fortunate to have an extremely talented and professional staff at WIPO who have responded more than well to the many challenges and changes that reform and digital transformation bring.  In particular, I thank the Senior Management Team, the four Deputy Directors General, Sylvie Forbin, Mario Matus, John Sandage and Binying Wang, the four Assistant Directors General, Minelik Getahun, Naresh Prasad, Ambi Sundaram and Yo Takagi, the Legal Counsel, Frits Bontekoe, and the Director of the Human Resources Management Department, Cornelia Moussa.  All have made outstanding contributions and have led their sectors with dedication and aplomb and succeeded in moving their sectors in a very positive direction.  I must especially mention those among them who have made the full journey of 12 years with me, Binying Wang, Naresh Prasad, Ambi Sundaram and Yo Takagi.  Of them, Naresh Prasad has probably had to suffer the most in his close connection with my functions as Chief of Staff.  Twelve years is a long time to put up with someone and I am deeply grateful to them for their perseverance, tolerance and indulgence.  They, like the other members of the Senior Management Team, have been immensely supportive.

Please allow me to make mention of four persons who have had to endure more than most in supporting me, namely my Assistants, Christine Collard, Cécile Müller, Tatiana Narciss and Marie-Antoine Rideau.  Two of them have worked with me for 25 years.  I would not have been able to undertake my duties without their careful and professional support.

WIPO is now quite a large Organization and we rely on many external service providers, especially in the areas of security, cleaning, languages, IT and catering.  These service providers are part of the Organization and its achievements.  Their work has made major contributions and I thank them all.

I also thank the industry, professional and civil society non-governmental organizations that have followed, supported and guided the work of the Organization.  Their contribution has become increasingly important to the success of the Organization.

It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to serve as Director General.  The greatest privilege of all has been the opportunity to meet so many people from so many different walks of life.  This has provided the opportunity for opening to the richness and diversity of the world and for understanding that we all share a common human heritage, experience and identity.