FerMUN 2017: Young people debate IP and other global issues UN-style

February 2017

By Benjamin Phillips, Amélie Bernard Beeckman, Edward Barnes, Maria Lalain, Manon Michel, Jan Hulsebosch, Lucie Parrinello and Maïlis Fontani, chairs of IP-related committees at FerMUN 2017

In early January 2017 more than 600 pupils from 21 countries took part in FerMUN, an annual bilingual conference modelled on the United Nations (UN). FerMUN is organized by the International Lycée in Ferney Voltaire, France, and UN organizations based in Geneva, Switzerland. The 2017 edition was hosted by WIPO.

The Conference simulates UN-style international negotiations and gives young people a chance to explore complex policy issues and seek solutions for a better future. Our presence at WIPO was an ideal opportunity to learn about intellectual property (IP) and its relevance to issues such as indigenous peoples’ rights, innovation and health, and competition. Before this year’s Conference, none of us knew much about IP. It is not something we learn a great deal about at school. So this was a fantastic opportunity to find out about it and how it touches so many aspects of everyday life.

In January 2017 WIPO hosted FerMUN, an annual bilingual conference for young people that simulates UN-style international negotiations and gives young people a chance to explore complex policy issues and seek solutions for a better future. More than 600 pupils from 21 countries took part in this year’s event. (Photo: FerMUN 2017).

Of the Conference’s 10 committees, four focused on IP-related issues. The wide-ranging debates gave students an opportunity to examine a range of viewpoints and to experience first-hand the challenges – and frustrations – associated with reaching common agreement on specific issues of global relevance. The students who took part in FerMUN 2017 were highly motivated and worked hard to come up with recommendations to tackle a range of topical issues. The way everybody worked together was quite remarkable, and the whole experience will stay in our memories for a long time. We all learned that achieving consensus among diverse groups on complex issues takes a lot of time, hard work and concentration. This article highlights some of the key things we took away from the experience.

Illegal downloading of copyright-protected works

The discussion on illegal downloading was particularly lively, with many students holding strong views on the subject. We learned that the copyright system is designed to ensure that creators are recognized for their work and have the opportunity to earn a living from it, but that they and other owners of IP face many difficulties because their rights can be bypassed or abused so easily online.

We explored different dimensions of the issue: the need for people to be able to access online content for educational and social (entertainment, etc.) purposes; the need to safeguard the economic interests of creators whose revenues are under threat; and the role of governments in regulating the issue.

We looked at ways to dissuade pirates from creating online platforms like PirateBay, for example by using sanctions inspired by France’s Hadopi law. Although it has since been put on hold, France adopted Hadopi in 2009 to encourage users to respect copyright by imposing fines and other sanctions on repeat infringers. The debate made us aware of the tensions that exist around the world in relation to IP and the challenges and trade-offs associated with finding effective ways to tackle them. One notable recommendation students came up with was a program to facilitate the sharing of information relating to online content (music, videos, pictures) among law enforcement agencies, Internet service providers and copyright owners, to better control the illegal downloading of these works.

The rights of indigenous peoples

IP and the rights of indigenous and local communities was another topic that attracted a great deal of interest. This issue has been at the forefront of international law and politics for many decades.

Indigenous and local communities hold a rich body of knowledge about the natural world, health, technology and techniques, rituals and other forms of cultural expression. This knowledge has been accumulated over generations. But all too often, their knowledge, practices and creativity are exploited without their consent and without their getting a fair share of the benefits derived from their use.

We discussed the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement that supplements the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Nagoya Protocol clearly spells out arrangements for access to genetic resources and benefit sharing, so that both providers and users of these resources know where they stand legally. One of its main aims is to create incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources.

The issues were hotly debated. Students unanimously adopted three resolutions which sought to better regulate relations between industry and indigenous communities to ensure that indigenous people receive a fairer share of the benefits associated with the use of their knowledge. Students called for greater political representation of indigenous populations within their respective nations, and called on international organizations to work together to better protect and promote indigenous cultural heritage.

These discussions gave us a taste of what it takes to take to negotiate an agreement on an issue that involves many different interests.

Climate change

Climate change and the role of IP in promoting green innovation and supporting the development and sharing of green technologies dominated many discussions, reflecting strong concern among students about this major global challenge.

Students noted that green technologies not only improve the quality of our lives, but also have an impact on our very existence and that of our planet. Aware of the importance of supporting green innovation, students tabled various proposals including mechanisms to speed up the process of examining whether green technologies merit patent protection. We also recognized the important role played by platforms such as WIPO GREEN in ensuring that green technologies reach the places they are most needed. And we recommended the creation and use of a certification label for green technologies to discourage so-called “greenwashing”, when companies claim to be green but in fact do little to reduce their environmental impact.

The fourth industrial revolution

The fourth industrial revolution was also on students’ minds. The fourth industrial revolution builds on the digital revolution and is characterized by the World Economic Forum as “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres”. Students emphasized the need to ensure that IP laws keep pace with emerging technological, economic and social trends, noting the huge potential for advanced technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence to improve our lives. They also highlighted the importance of developing global IP systems to encourage and support innovation and creativity in the digital or virtual world. A more collaborative approach to IP regulation was also recommended, and the need for stronger protection against cyberattacks was highlighted.

Access to healthcare

Access to healthcare was another hot topic at the Conference. It is an emotional issue that is of direct interest to us all. 

Students were particularly concerned about the difficulties facing patients in developing countries in getting the medicines they need. Debates explored the tension between the need to ensure broad access to healthcare and the importance of respecting the IP rights of medical researchers to ensure long-term investment in the development of new and improved drugs. Students recognized that the process of developing high-quality drugs and effective treatments takes many years and is very costly – drugs have to go through a rigorous approval process to ensure they are safe to use before they even arrive on pharmacy shelves. But they also recognized that the situation of patients is precarious, particularly in developing countries, because they are unable to access the treatments they need. Many developing countries are not in a position to develop and produce essential medicines at a price patients can afford. Students stressed that the needs of patients must come first despite the difficulties associated with balancing these competing interests. In support of this they passed a resolution calling for the creation of a World Health Organization (WHO) Commission to monitor the price of medicines, especially in developing countries, and to ensure that corporate interests do not overshadow patient needs. The resolution also proposed the development of a national fund to help purchase expensive medicines such as those required for the treatment of cancer and genetic-related illnesses.

On a related issue, students noted that the counterfeiting of medicines was a global problem that was further complicated by the high cost of drugs and by healthcare systems that are under-resourced in many countries. They noted that vulnerable patients are often duped into buying counterfeit medicines that expose them to increased health risks and even death. Students recognized the difficulties associated with reducing the counterfeiting of medicines and welcomed Interpol’s “Pangea” actions, which take down thousands of online pharmacies selling counterfeit medicines every year.

An enriching experience

The debates that took place at the FerMUN 2017 Conference broadened our knowledge of a range of topical issues. In particular, it opened the minds of hundreds of students and teachers to the role the IP plays in our everyday lives. For many of us, it was the first time we had thought seriously about IP. We came away from the Conference with a much better understanding of how a balanced IP system can promote the innovation that is crucial in tackling so many global issues, from access to health to climate change to the protection of traditional knowledge. We also came to appreciate the importance of the work of the United Nations in bringing people together to discuss issues of common concern, and the challenges involved in reaching agreement among groups with diverse views and interests.

The Conference inspired young people from across the globe and made us realize that we have the power to shape our world. As Jeremy Bingham, Secretary General of FerMUN 2017, noted in his opening speech: “The Conference is more than a simple high school activity, more than a simulation – it’s an opportunity to embrace and acknowledge the voice we have and to feel empowered to speak up about the environment, inequalities, corruption, discrimination and war. It teaches us to advocate for change.”

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