As the United Nations body dealing with patents and intellectual property (IP) rights opens its annual assembly in Geneva on Monday, its director-genera is off to a rocky start in his attempt to win a second, six-year term.
Francis Gurry, an Australian who has been at WIPO for three decades, has exasperated some influential members of Congress.
The State Department in the first half of last year began investigating WIPO’s decision to discreetly ship computer equipment to North Korea and Iran, regimes subject to U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions related to their nuclear activities.
Although both the State Department and a U.N. sanctions committee later concluded that the transfer of the computer equipment had not violated U.N. sanctions, the administration was unhappy about the cagey nature of the arrangement, which had not been cleared beforehand.
“Given that the United States had led the efforts in the U.N. Security Council to impose the toughest global sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea, in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program, we were troubled to discover that these projects had been carried out without the knowledge of member states or the relevant UN Sanctions Committees,” Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer said in August 2012.
The equipment shipped to North Korea, valued at around $118,000, was to upgrade database systems and printing facilities in the Stalinist regime’s Invention Office. Equipment worth some $80,000 went to Iran to update computing equipment in advance of receiving WIPO’s proprietary software, used by IP offices around the world.
At the State Department’s behest, Gurry later agreed to take steps to increase transparency and oversight, including referring to legal counsel any plans to supply sanctioned countries.
Unlike most U.N. agencies, WIPO does not get the bulk of its funding from member-states but rather from fees levied for registering patents, trademarks and industrial designs. The U.S. accounts for more of those fees than any of the other 185 WIPO members.
When the House Foreign Affairs Committee scheduled a hearing in July 2012 to investigate the issue, Gurry refused to allow two senior WIPO officials to appear, and the hearing was canceled.
The then-chairman of the committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) was one of the five lawmakers who have now written to Secretary of State John Kerry asking the administration not to support Gurry’s re-election next year.
The others are California Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo, whose districts include parts of Silicon Valley, and Reps. Howard Coble (R) and Melvin Watt (D) from North Carolina, also home to leading technology firms.
In their letter they said that WIPO’s secretive shipments of U.S.-made computer equipment to Iran and North Korea “is activity that would have put any U.S. citizen behind bars, but when caught in the act, Gurry did not stop or even apologize.”
“Instead he claimed that U.S. law was of no concern to him or WIPO. Then he refused to allow WIPO witnesses to testify in a bipartisan investigation being conducted by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs,” they wrote.
“Gurry’s erratic and secretive behavior and colossal lack of judgment must disqualify him from receiving support from the U.S. government.”
The lawmakers cited the administration as having said last year that nearly 30 percent of U.S. jobs are linked directly or indirectly to “IP-intensive industries.”
“Those international IP systems are the responsibility of WIPO, the only user fee-supported agency of the United Nations. More of those fees come from U.S. innovators than from anyplace else in the world. We therefore have a critical national interest in WIPO’s governance.”
They urged the administration to identify and support an alternate candidate to head the agency.
Nominations for director-general opened earlier this month and may be submitted by member-states until December 6, with the appointment decision scheduled for next May.
So far only one other name has been put forward alongside Gurry’s, that of a senior WIPO official from Nigeria, Geoffrey Oneayama.
There is an American in WIPO’s senior leadership, although his name has not yet emerged as a potential nominee. Deputy director general for innovation and technology James Pooley was an IP practitioner in Silicon Valley before joining the agency.
Pooley was one of the two witnesses the House Foreign Affairs Committee had invited to testify at their subsequently-canceled hearing. (The other was Gurry’s strategic advisor, Miranda Brown, also an Australian. Gurry at the time justified his decision by saying neither had the competence or knowledge to testify about the North Korea and Iran technology transfers.)
In an Aug. 2012 letter to Gurry complaining about his refusal to authorize the two witnesses, Ros-Lehtinen and then-ranking member Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) described Pooley as “a widely-known and very well-respected lawyer.”