Francis Gurry led WIPO as Director General from October 1, 2008 to September 30, 2020.

Reflections on IP: An interview with WIPO Director General Francis Gurry

September 2020

Director General Francis Gurry has been at the helm
of WIPO for the last 12 years. (Photo: WIPO/E. Berrod)

Francis Gurry reflects on his experience over the past 12 years at the helm of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and discusses some of the major challenges that lie ahead for the international intellectual property (IP) community.

What has been the high point of your career at WIPO?

The fact that the Organization now has on board so many fine professionals who are collaborating across vertical reporting lines to develop and bring some of our best new ideas and projects to fruition. I don’t think there is anything now that does not require horizontal collaboration. It has been great to see that come together.

What has been your greatest achievement as Director General?

I think that is for others to judge. But for me, the Marrakesh Treaty and the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) stand out. They successfully address a specific need and have the good will of all member states and relevant stakeholders. My colleagues have done wonderful work in building up the ABC Global Book Service, a repertoire of over 635,000 works in more than 80 languages, which is one of the key ways the ABC makes operational the legal framework established by member states in the Marrakesh Treaty. That has been a great exercise.

About the Marrakesh Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled addresses the global “book famine.” It requires contracting parties to adopt national law provisions that permit the production of books in accessible formats, such as Braille, e-text, audio or large print, by organizations, so-called authorized entities, that serve people who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled. It also allows for the exchange of such accessible texts across national boundaries, without the need to request permission from the copyright owner.

The World Health Organization estimates that 253 million people are living with visual impairments around the world, with over 90 percent of them located in lower-income countries.

The Treaty was adopted on June 27, 2013, at a diplomatic conference organized by WIPO and hosted by the Kingdom of Morocco in Marrakesh. The Treaty entered into force on September 30, 2016, three months after it gained the necessary 20 ratifications or accessions by WIPO member states. The membership of the Treaty has grown rapidly since its entry into force in 2016. At the time of writing, the Treaty has 70 contracting parties covering 97 countries.

What enabled that success?

First, the Marrakesh Treaty and the ABC deal with a specific problem, which makes it easier to measure the impact and raise comfort levels around the proposed solution.

Adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, Marrakesh, Morocco, June 2013. (Photo: WIPO/E. Berrod)

Second, they address a truly international problem. Thanks to the Marrakesh Treaty, it is now possible to produce just one accessible version of a publication in a given language and to make it available through the ABC Global Book Service, thereby eliminating the need to produce multiple accessible versions of the same publication in the same language for different countries. It’s a perfect example of an international solution that addresses an international need.

And third, the cause is indisputable. Nobody takes issue with enabling blind persons to have equal access to publications, which are the basis of the transmission of knowledge.

All three conditions rarely come together in this way.

About the Accessible Books Consortium

WIPO and its partners created the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) in 2014 to help implement the objectives of the Marrakesh Treaty at a practical level. Less than 10 percent of all published works are produced in accessible formats according to World Blind Union estimates. To increase the overall number of accessible works that are globally available, the ABC works in three areas:

Capacity building – over 12,800 educational titles in national languages have been produced in accessible formats through funding, training and technical assistance provided by the ABC in 17 developing or least developed countries in the past five years.

Accessible publishing – the ABC promotes the production of “born accessible” works by publishers, that is, books that are usable from the start by both sighted persons and the print disabled. Publishers and publisher associations around the world are invited to sign the ABC Charter for Accessible Publishing, which contains eight high-level aspirational principles relating to digital publications in accessible formats. Hachette Livre, one of the world’s largest publishers, was the 100th signatory of the ABC Charter.

ABC Global Book Service – is a global library catalogue of accessible formats that enables participating libraries for the blind from around the world to share items in their collections and distribute accessible titles obtained through the ABC to their patrons. The ABC Global Book Service now has over 635,000 accessible works in more than 80 languages available for cross-border exchange to benefit people who are print-disabled. Over 70 libraries for the blind from around the world have joined the Service.

Are there any other developments that stand out?

Yes. There is a greater acceptance around the world, albeit nuanced, that IP is an extremely serious issue that requires high-level policy attention. While there are inevitable differences of opinion with respect to approach, which is to be expected, we have reached the stage where everyone agrees that IP is important. Today, for example, many developing countries are embracing IP not because they have to, but because they want to see what they can get out of it and how they can use it to realize their own development goals. That’s a great thing.

And what have been the greatest challenges?

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry and recording
legend Stevie Wonder celebrate the conclusion of
the historic Marrakesh Treaty in June 2013.
(Photo: WIPO/E. Berrod)

The greatest policy challenge has been the fact that international cooperation is not currently the default policy response of decision makers to achieve solutions, even when the problems are global in nature. This is a widespread phenomenon and there are many possible explanations. Deep analysis will be required to understand why it is occurring.

Globalization, for example, is an important factor that has generated new policy challenges. Technology has fueled global competition, which as a result of the rapid development of certain regions, has become multi-polar. Inevitably, this is engendering a degree of reticence about international solutions that may affect competitive positions. At WIPO, we see this playing out, in particular, in our normative program, making it extremely difficult to achieve international agreement on new rules.

The big challenge, therefore, is how to develop the reflex among decision makers to seek international solutions for what are clearly international problems. Linked to this is the possibility of fragmentation in this world, which is another huge challenge. Whether it affects the functioning of the Internet as a technology of universal connectivity or trade, fragmentation has many negative implications.

And what about successes at the operational level?

At the operational level, we have been able to harness the power of information technology (IT) for greater connectivity in delivering the Organization’s services and platforms, which are used by member states and other stakeholders. And this has been a great advantage.

What lessons have you drawn from your experience as Director General?

There are two lessons, in particular. The first is the value of openness, which allows us to learn from the experiences of others. Beyond its personal rewards, openness also has great institutional and strategic value. There are many historical examples of societies and economies that have been successful because they were open. These include the Arab Caliphates of the 9th and 10th centuries and the Republic of Venice, where the first formal patent law originated. A more recent example is Silicon Valley. As the findings of the 2019 World Intellectual Property Report show, its willingness to attract talent from across the globe has been a key ingredient in its success.

For organizations like WIPO, the real challenge is to develop timely responses that are fit for the given purposes.

The second lesson is the value of collaboration. At WIPO, this flows not only from different parts of the Organization working together, but from different member states and other stakeholders working together. So many of the initiatives we have launched have been vastly improved through collaboration.

What are the biggest challenges facing policymakers in the future?

The speed of technological change is a huge challenge that everyone, everywhere is grappling with every single day. The institutions that exist today were not designed for such speed. Parliaments, for example, are not formulating “regulatory” or policy frameworks in advance of a new technology – they normally legislate after the fact, because the new technologies and their implications are unknown. We are all in this position. The international system as we have known it for the last 70 years also needs to transform itself to reignite confidence in international cooperation. That, too, is a huge challenge.

For organizations like WIPO, the real challenge is to develop timely responses that are fit for the given purposes. This task is far more challenging than at the national level, where things move more quickly, because the process involves the global community.

One possible solution, which we are already doing to some extent, may be for the international community to see what works at the national level and then, after 20 years or so, form an international rule. However, the international nature of the problems we face may require an international solution sooner. That may involve a different approach, but one that is underpinned by discretion and care, to guard against putting forward solutions that are not fit for the purpose.

“The speed of technological change is a huge challenge for everyone,” notes Francis Gurry. “For organizations like WIPO, the real challenge is to develop timely responses that are fit for the given purposes.” (Photo: WIPO)

Turning to a current challenge, does IP have an important role in this era of COVID?

IP has an extraordinarily important role technologically in dealing with COVID. IP exists to create the right incentives for innovation to occur and what we need now is innovation for effective vaccines and therapeutics. Questions of access, equity and justice, are all legitimate and fundamental, but they do not arise until we have something to have access to.

And how have IP-dependent sectors fared in the pandemic?

Certain segments of the economy that rely on IP are distressed by COVID and the necessary policy actions that are being implemented to contain it. The creative industries are particularly distressed. For example, with confinement, musicians cannot perform live and are losing a major source of their revenue. Many authors and creators of all kinds, and many thousands of others who work in the creative industries, are in a catastrophic situation. Beyond the economic distress caused, we also need to think about the harm that COVID is inflicting on our culture.

IP has an extraordinarily important role technologically in dealing with COVID. IP exists to create the right incentives for innovation to occur and what we need now is innovation for effective vaccines and therapeutics.

Startups are another casualty of COVID. As discussed in the recently published Global Innovation Index 2020: Who Will Finance Innovation?, this extremely rich layer of entrepreneurship, which is built on new ideas and IP, and the financing on which it depends, are reeling from COVID-induced economic uncertainty and recession.

As a new age of artificial intelligence (AI)-driven innovation dawns, what other issues will IP policymakers face?

Francis Gurry notes that policy makers “will face many questions of fundamental importance to the IP framework,” as a new age of AI-driven innovation unfolds. (Photo: GettyImages/ipopba)

They will face many questions of fundamental importance to the IP framework, which has been developed to deal with invention and creation. They include the dichotomy – which may be false – of machine invention and creation on the one hand and human invention and creation on the other hand. IP was designed with human invention and creation in mind. To the extent that machine invention and creation occurs – and that is a question to explore – what is the impact on and how should the IP system respond?

For creation, for example, the simple technical answer is that the copyright statute requires the author to be human. But is that really the ultimate answer? If algorithms are capable of making original creations that are interesting and attractive to the market, what sort of regulatory framework is required to govern that? What sort of incentives do you want to create? Do you want to allow free copying? All of these traditional IP-related questions will arise.

There are also questions relating to how AI-driven invention and creation can distort creative works and make new works out of existing performances, and the whole issue of deep fakes.

I see the evolution [of the IP system] being focused in terms of possible new layers to address the new technologies which were not around when the classical system was designed.

Another question relates to the extent to which copyright-protected data can be used to create new works. Everyone agrees that research is entirely legitimate in the human world – rules have been developed to legitimize it. But how do we apply that to a machine which is “researching?” Last year, WIPO initiated a Conversation on AI and IP with member states to explore these and other related issues.

What message do you have for policymakers in addressing these issues?

First, deal with specific problems, such as whether copyright-protected data can be used to feed an algorithm to produce new creative content. Trying to have a general legislative instrument on AI will not work because the technology is developing too rapidly and it will be impossible to cover everything. The more specific the problem and the proposed solution, the easier it will be to measure the impact of legislating and to agree on a solution.

Second, dealing with the issues must be a multi-stakeholder process. Today, for the most part, the expertise, knowledge and developments are created in the non-governmental, private sector. That expertise needs to be involved in the process to help policymakers understand these complex issues.

And third, policymakers need the humility to know that they don’t know.

How do you see the IP system evolving in the future?

Some argue the classical IP system, which was designed for industrial technology, is not fit for the digital age, but the statistics tell us otherwise. The classical IP system is more popular than ever and keeps expanding at a rate much greater than the world economy. But there are gaps in the classical system. Take AI, and digital technology more broadly, as examples. I see the evolution being focused in terms of possible new layers to address the new technologies which were not around when the classical system was designed.

And the innovation landscape?

In recent years, great emphasis has been placed on innovation and creativity. In some respects, this has led to value being placed on the new, simply because it is new. There are already indications that, in future, society will require innovators and creators to pursue “responsible innovation” to address concretely what are perceived as society’s greatest needs.

How to channel that creative energy, however, is a difficult question because when you require that innovation and creativity are task oriented, in a certain sense, you are confining the future to the present. It’s a great dilemma. As with all things, the answer probably lies in establishing a balance between the freedom to create and the responsibilities that come with exercising that freedom.

Of the world’s wealth of inventors and creators, which do you find most inspirational?

I am inspired by all inventors and creators. They make and re-make our world and our future. It is great to see.

What are your plans for the future?

I will be doing some teaching, some advisory work and some writing.


Mr. Gurry has served as Director General of WIPO since October 1, 2008. He will be succeeded by Mr. Daren Tang from Singapore, who was appointed by WIPO member states as the Organization’s next Director General in May 2020. Mr. Tang’s six-year term will begin on October 1, 2020.

The baton passes to Mr. Tang

(Photo: WIPO/E. Berrod)

In early May 2020, WIPO’s Member States appointed by consensus Mr. Daren Tang as the Organization's next Director General. Mr. Tang's six-year term will begin on October 1, 2020. Mr. Tang’s appointment by the General Assembly, WIPO’s highest governing body, followed his nomination by the WIPO Coordination Committee in March, 2020. Mr. Tang will succeed Mr. Francis Gurry, who has served as WIPO's Director General since October 1, 2008.

"I look forward to working with the Member States and staff of WIPO, as well as the many stakeholders in the global IP community, to build our future IP ecosystem – one that is balanced, inclusive and vibrant", said Mr. Tang in his acceptance speech.

Mr. Tang will be the fifth Director General of WIPO, following Mr. Gurry of Australia (2008-2020), Mr. Kamil Idris of Sudan (1997-2008), Mr. Arpad Bogsch of the United States (1973-1997) and Mr. Georg Bodenhausen of the Netherlands (1970-1973).

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