The absence of an international sovereign makes a global IPRs system problematic. Every nation has different intellectual property laws, making cooperation difficult, although many international IPRs agreements have been developed. Which nation’s standards should apply? Most international agreements take a national approach in which a country agrees to provide foreign innovators with the same protection provided to its domestic citizens. Creators of intellectual property generally must seek protection separately in each jurisdiction, a cumbersome process.
The United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) provides support for the international intellectual property system. Its mission is “to promote through international cooperation the creation, dissemination, use and protection of works of the human mind for the economic, cultural and social progress of all mankind.”
Globalization has increased the need for more international IPRs coordination. Multinational organizations seek consistent laws across borders and inventors want universal protection for their inventions. The World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) attempts to provide a more standard IPRs system and sets minimum protection that must be provided by all member states.
Ethical issues become particularly important at the international level (Rischard 2002). Some fear that increasing IPRs protection will increase inequities between the developed and the developing world. Others are concerned that IPRs deny access to products desperately needed by the poor or powerless. Still others believe adequate IPRs standards are critical to promoting technology transfer and foreign investment.
IPRs can deny access to essential products and information to those who need them most, particularly in developing countries. Drug research and development is extremely expensive, and pharmaceutical countries price drugs to recoup expenses and make a profit. No one else is allowed to manufacture drugs protected under patents. Those who need the drugs often have little money. Is it fair to allow people to die because they cannot afford drugs that could prolong their lives?
The TRIPS Agreement allows for compulsory licenses, an exception to IPRs in special cases such as emergencies, that give developing countries access to essential drugs for major health problems such as HIV/AIDS or malaria. Such policies may have a boomerang effect; pharmaceutical companies may be less likely to invest in research to develop drugs for conditions found primarily in poor countries if there is no profit to be made. The answer to the drug access problem may be better addressed by turning to solutions unrelated to intellectual property rights, such as foreign aid. Some pharmaceutical companies have made drugs available at drastically reduced rates to those who cannot afford them.
Inspiration for new products often comes from local or traditional knowledge. Who should benefit when a drug company develops a new drug based on knowledge about the properties of a plant gained from an indigenous tribe in a remote region? Is the company that developed a commercial drug entitled to all the profits or should it share revenues with the people who supplied the information or with the country from which the plants are harvested?