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Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights

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The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is an international agreement on the subject of "intellectual property". It covers copyright, patents, trademarks, trade secrets, industrial designs[?], geographical indicia[?] and integrated circuit layouts.

TRIPs requires member states to provide strong intellectual property rights in many of these areas. For example, under TRIPS:

  • Copyright terms must extend to 50 years after the death of the author
  • Copyright must be granted automatically, and not based upon any "formality", such as registrations or systems of renewal
  • Computer programs must be regarded as "literary works" under copyright law and receive the same terms of protection
  • National exceptions to copyright (such as "fair use" in the United States) must be tightly constrained
  • Patents must be granted in all fields of endeavor (regardless of whether it is in the public interest to do so)
  • Exceptions to patent law must be limited almost as stricly as those to copyright law
  • In each state, intellectual property laws may not offer any benefits to local citizens which are not availble to citizens of other TRIPs signatories (this is called "national treatment"). TRIPs also has a most favoured nation clause.

Many of the TRIPs provisions on copyright were imported from the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

TRIPs was added to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) at the end of the Uruguay round[?] of trade negotiations in 1994. Its inclusion was the culmination of a program of intense lobbying by the United States, supported by the EU, Japan and other first world states. Also influential were campaigns of unilateral economic encouragement (under the Generalized System of Preferences[?]) and coercion[?] (under Section 301[?] of the Trade Act). In turn, the United States strategy of linking trade policy to intellectual property standards can be traced back to the entrepreneurship of senior management at Pfizer in the early 1980s, who mobilised US corporations and made maximising intellectual property privileges the number one priority of US trade policy.

After the Uruguay round, the GATT became the basis of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Since ratification of TRIPs is a compulsory requirement of WTO membership, and any country which wishes to obtain easy access to the numerous international markets opened by the WTO, must enact the very strict intellectual property laws mandated by TRIPs.

Futhermore, unlike other international agreements on intellectual property, TRIPs has a powerful enforcement mechanism. States which do not adopt TRIPs-compliant intellectual property systems can be disciplined through the WTO's dispute settlement mechanism[?], which is capable of authorising trade sanctions[?] against dissident states.

Since TRIPs was enacted, it has received a growing level of criticism from developing countries, academics and NGOs. But because of the rule making processes in the WTO, it is very unlikely that even enormous levels of political opposition could do much to decrease the power of TRIPs.

The most visible conflict has been over AIDS drugs in Africa. Despite the rather indefensible role which patents have played in undermining public health programs across Africa, this controversy has not lead to any revisions to TRIPs. Instead, an interprative statement, the Doha Declaration, was issued in Novemeber 2001, which indicated that TRIPs should not prevent states from dealing with public health crises. Since that time, at the behest of PhRMA, the United States (and, to a lesser extent, other developed nations) has been working to minimise the effect of the declaration.


  1. The WTO TRIPs gateway: http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/trips_e/trips_e.htm
  2. Drahos & Braithwaite, "Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy?" (http://www.earthscan.co.uk/asp/bookdetails.asp?key=3794), Earthscan Publications, 2002
  3. The Consumer Project on Technology page on Health Care and Intellectual Property: http://www.cptech.org/ip/health/

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