The World Trade Organisation and the protection of intellectual property

The World Trade Organisation establishes the rules of global trade and reduces tariffs. It also sets multilateral minimum standards for the protection of intellectual property rights, which all member states must comply with.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) was founded in 1995 and is based in Geneva. By reducing tariffs and setting out rules for trade between its 164 member states (as at 2016), it aims to promote global trade and thereby economic growth and prosperity. The WTO combines three key trade agreements:

  • GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, merchandise trade);
  • GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services, trade of services);
  • TRIPS (Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Agreement).

WTO revises TRIPS Agreement

The TRIPS Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was revised on 23 January 2017. The revision of the agreement provides poorer WTO members with access to generic drugs. This change is in particular important for those countries that do not have their own pharmaceutical industry. This is the first revision of a WTO agreement since the organisation was created in 1995. Switzerland had already ratified the amendment on 13 September 2006, being the second country worldwide to do so, and has provided for the possibility of a compulsory license for the export of medicines under the Swiss Patents Act since 1 July 2008.


The TRIPS Agreement

The TRIPS Agreements sets out multilateral minimum standards for all key areas of intellectual property:

  • Copyright and related rights
  • Trade marks for goods and services
  • Geographical indications
  • Designs
  • Patents
  • Layout-Design (Topographies) of integrated circuits
  • Undisclosed information (among which trade and manufacturing secrets).

In addition, it contains important rules on procedural law, law enforcement and border measures to combat counterfeiting and piracy. As part of the WTO's body of regulations, it is also subject to the WTO dispute settlement procedure.


The TRIPS Council

The TRIPS Council consists of all WTO members. It administers the TRIPS Agreement, reviews its implementation by member states and discusses important questions in connection with trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, such as:

  • How does the TRIPS Agreement affect access to medicines?
  • How can geographical indications be better protected?
  • How can biopiracy be prevented through the patent system?
  • How can the protection of intellectual property boost innovation and development?

The Council also discusses and coordinates technical cooperation and technology transfer between developed and less developed countries.


What tasks does the IPI perform in the WTO?

  • We play an active and committed part in the work of the WTO
  • We lead the Swiss delegation at TRIPS Council meetings
  • We coordinate Switzerland's position in close collaboration with the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the Swiss Mission in Geneva and other involved administrative agencies and external stakeholders

Intellectual property and innovation – an example of the IPI’s commitment

In the TRIPS Council, Switzerland, together with other WTO member states, regularly puts the issue of “IP and Innovation” on the agenda. Since 2012, the Council has addressed three sub-topics under this agenda item every year – topics such as the benefits of IP for SMEs in trade, development and growth; strategies for low-emission technologies; and technology partnerships with universities.

In 2018, the TRIPS Council focused on the topic of the benefits of intellectual property in the new economy. The IPI drafted a communication to the TRIPS Council on this in October 2018 and co-organised a panel discussion (7 November 2018). The communication (pdf) was sponsored by the group Friends of IP and Innovation (with Brazil as a co-sponsor, pdf). Taking part on the panel (pdf) was the chief economist of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as well as three scientists, who had been able to implement their university work entrepreneurially thanks to intellectual property rights. The entrepreneurs explained with their case studies how it had been possible, thanks to a patent, to get the necessary financial means for their start-up from investors.

A large number of WTO members took part in the discussion on IP and the new economy in the TRIPS Council (8 November 2018), with their speeches giving a broad overview of the state measures and instruments that support young enterprises in their start-up phase. They also illustrated the contribution of the IP system as being a framework for economic growth and of benefit to society. In its own intervention (pdf), Switzerland presented two IP-related start-ups that had come out of a collaboration between universities and Innosuisse.

The IP and innovation topics discussed in the past in the TRIPS Council (as well as links to contributions made by individual WTO members including Switzerland) can be found on the WTO’s website.