“Least-developed countries have been given an extension until 1 July 2013 to provide protection for trademarks, copyright, patents and other intellectual property under the WTO’s agreement, following a decision reached by member governments on 29 November 2005,” said a statement from the WTO.
“The decision also reiterates developed countries’ commitment to provide technical and financial cooperation to help the least-developed countries implement the TRIPS Agreement and respond to needs that the least-developed countries have promised to identify, preferably over the next two years,” said the WTO.
LDCs also don’t need to provide patent protection for pharmaceutical products until 2016.
The SAARC region is also rich in traditional knowledge and bio-diversity.
Therefore, patenting of traditional knowledge and bio-piracy, by foreign organisations, is a major concern.
A patent can be awarded only if a product is novel and shows inventive steps, in addition to having a commercial application.
But rich countries, with enough money and technical capabilities to do their own R&D, have been known to overlook the rules.
The use of Neem, a tree found in India and Sri Lanka, for example, was patented in some European countries and the US – although people in South Asia have been using it as a pesticide and medicine for centuries.
Basmati rice was patented in the US, at the cost of its original producers - Indian smallholder farmers - who started losing their market to the US.
The US also granted a patent for the use of Turmeric in would healing, when South Asians have been using it as an antiseptic for time immemorial.
There are many more similar examples and so, to control traditional knowledge takeovers of by foreign companies, South Asian countries are asking for a safety clause.
The countries want a ‘disclosure requirement’ that makes it mandatory for a patent applicant to say where a genetic resource or traditional knowledge was sourced from.
But South Asian countries are yet to see a break through in these areas.
Under the TRIPS agreement, the WTO’s 32 LDC members, including 3 from South Asia, were supposed to be TRIPS compliant from January 1, 2006.
The latest decision buys time for Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives to enforce TRIPS legislation.
Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, South Asia’s developing countries had to apply TRIPS provisions by January 1, 2000.
Two other landlocked, least developed South Asian countries – Bhutan and Afghanistan – are waiting in line to join the world trade club.
But TRIPS benefits to South Asia have been very limited – mainly because of low innovation.
Over half the patent applications in Sri Lanka, for instance, are from foreign companies and less than 10 percent of locally owned patents are renewed.
The TRIPS requirement for intellectual property protection for plant varieties, is also viewed with distrust by many South Asian civil rights groups that say such a law could violate traditional rights of farmers.
Sri Lanka too, came out with a draft for a plant variety protection (PVP) law in 2001, but was sent back to the drawing board by farmer’s rights groups.
Activists said the draft was biased in favor of big business and exploited Sri Lanka’s majority, rural, small farmers.
The PVP draft law, said local activists, did not compensate farmers if a company develops a plant variety using a traditional crop developed by farmers but it stopped farmers from saving, exchanging and selling seeds of protected plant varieties.
So SAARC countries are looking for other ways to benefit from the TRIPS.
One way, is through a system that provides worldwide intellectual property protection for products that are unique, due to their place of origin.
This is already happening under the Geographical Indications provision of the TRIPS but is limited to wines and spirits at the moment.
Under this provision names like Champagne, Tequila and Roquefort can’t be used on wines and spirits produced in any other part of the world.
South Asian countries want product names like Ceylon tea, Ceylon sapphire, Darjeeling tee and Basmati rice getting the same special treatment.
-Dilshani Samaraweera: firstname.lastname@example.org