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The Disclosure of Technology in the Patent System

Technical Symposium on Access to Medicines, Patent Information and Freedom to Operate

February 18, 2011

Francis Gurry, Director General, World Intellectual Property Organization

Director General Margaret Chan,
Director General Pascal Lamy,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me say what a great pleasure it is for WIPO to be cooperating with the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. As you all know, it is a cooperation that has been going on for some time now. It is becoming stronger and we are coming to a better understanding of each other’s perspectives. Health, trade and innovation are indispensable issues when tackling the problems that we are increasingly facing in a globalized world.

I am delighted that the session today is focusing on access to medicines and the role of patent information or the disclosures that the patent system generates. As you are all aware, one of the justifications for having a patent system is disclosure of technology. I would like to illustrate that justification with a little example.

The saxophone is the only instrument in the orchestra that was once patented. It was patented in 1842 in France by Adolphe Sax. Throughout the course of the next 40 or so years, there were another 20 or 30 patents that were taken out on the saxophone that led to the mouthpiece that we now know, the alto sax, other different varieties of sax, and an improved mechanism for the saxophone itself. All that technology has been in the public domain for well over 100 years now, and anyone can make or use the saxophone. And it is interesting and instructive to compare that with the evolution of the violin. In Cremona, in Italy, in the 18th century, the technology was family based and secret. It was passed from generation to generation in secrecy. The result is that nobody, to this day, still knows how the very best violins that the world has ever seen – the Stradivarius and the others – were made. The secret of their manufacture has been lost in time and lost in the secrecy of the families and the methods by which they transmitted their knowledge.

The disclosure function is one that we take for granted, but we should not take it completely for granted, particularly when we think of process technologies, which can be used in the secrecy of a factory and are not self evident in the product itself. The disclosure function has led, in fact, to the patent system constituting the most comprehensive, the most accessible and the most systematic record of humanity’s technology.

Studies have shown that about 80% of the technology that is disclosed through the patent system is not disclosed through other sources. There are many historical examples of technologies first being disclosed, many years before their commercial applications, in the patent system: the Hollerith punched card, the jet engine, television, and so forth.

The patent disclosure function, we know, did not really operate in the manner in which it was intended in the paper age because, in order to find out the technology, you had to go to a library, and there were relatively few of them in the world, and they certainly were not in the developing world. And you had to consult, in a very awkward manner, and search the technology in paper collections. Of course, digital technology and the Internet have changed all that with their democratization of knowledge. Now, the disclosure function of the patent system really is an effective means of constituting a systematic and comprehensive record of humanity’s technology which is easily searchable and easily available throughout the whole of the world, including, of course, the developing world.

The patent system now constitutes a major source of economic and technological intelligence. It shows what fields of technology and which particular technologies are moving, which countries and companies are active in particular technologies, in which countries they are patenting them and, from the point of view of today’s discussion in particular, where there is freedom to operate, where there are no property rights encumbering a particular technology. So it is an extremely important function.

A major mission of WIPO is to make this function operate effectively; to put at the disposal of the world and, in particular, other areas of public policy, such as health, an accessible and easily usable record of humanity’s technology. WIPO has a tool known as PATENTSCOPE® which contains some eight million patent documents; and that number will rise to about 20 million in the course of this year. Our objective is to enlarge this collection so that it comprehensively covers the world. We have for this purpose digitization and automation programs in 61 developing countries around the world. As we digitize their patent collections, these will be added to the central database.

We also need to have much better tools for accessing that information since, now, nearly one third of the world’s technology is produced in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. So it is not immediately apparent how we are going to search that technology unless you are Chinese, Japanese or Korean and, thus, how we are going to take advantage of the information that has been disclosed in this way. For this purpose, we are working on cross lingual search tools and on improving machine assisted translation techniques, which these days are at least good enough to tell you whether you need or do not need a translation.

We are very pleased to see that the focus today is on this important function of the patent system and how it can be put into service for health. Once again, let me reiterate our thanks to Margaret Chan for her leadership in organizing today’s seminar and to Pascal Lamy, who is at the origin of the cooperation strengthening between our three organizations.

Thank you.