Finishing Touches: WIPO’s Francis Gurry Reflects on Career

Published: July 8, 2020

Francis Gurry (World Intellectual Property Organization, Switzerland) © WIPO/Berrod

Francis Gurry (World Intellectual Property Organization, Switzerland) © WIPO/Berrod

When Francis Gurry first started at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), intellectual property (IP) was relatively unknown, he says. Now, some 35 years later as the Director General is set to end his tenure with the organization, IP has “moved from the periphery of the economy and society to the center,” he says in an interview with INTA.

Francis Gurry arrived at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 1985, was elected Director General in 2008, and made a permanent mark on the United Nations agency. On October 1, some 35 years later, he is set to end his tenure with the organization. Director General Gurry took time with the INTA Bulletin to reflect on his distinguished career and to share his thoughts about the current and future state of WIPO, multilateralism, dramatic geopolitical change, and the global IP system.

Dr. Gurry came to WIPO after nearly a decade of practicing law and university teaching, mainly in his native Australia. Among his roles at WIPO, he served as Legal Counsel, Assistant Director General, and Deputy Director General in charge of patents. Early in his tenure, he was widely credited with the establishment of the landmark WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center, which has administered some 700 disputes under the WIPO Mediation, Arbitration, and Expert Determination Rules, and where trademark holders have filed more than 48,000 complaints under the WIPO-initiated Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP) mechanism. Under his leadership since 2008, WIPO saw an increase in revenues of 50 percent, and an annual average growth of 3.94 percent in the Madrid trademark filings.

In just a few months you move on from a long and distinguished career at WIPO. Looking back, can you highlight some of your favorite accomplishments?
Thank you very much, and let me say it’s really a pleasure to be able to engage once again with INTA, a fantastic organization and a fantastic supporter of multilateralism and of WIPO.

It’s really for others to judge, but I would say some of the things that I’m most pleased about are the establishment of the arbitration center, which has been taken forward by my colleagues with great professionalism. Also the domain name dispute system, which led to the establishment of the UDRP for domain name disputes. It was very important because it was an early pioneer in a public Internet process to establish a policy that became enacted.

Then, in more recent times, the Marrakesh Treaty. That’s a fantastic thing for international treaties, a fantastic thing for multilateralism, for WIPO, and for blind persons and visually impaired persons. The Accessible Books Consortium that goes hand in hand with it now has over 500,000 titles in its catalog for blind persons around the world, in accessible formats. The PCT [Patent Cooperation Treaty] electronic environment is another significant development. The PCT was basically a paper-based operation when I went to it in 2002. I wouldn’t claim exclusive credit for any of these achievements. My colleagues have really taken the ball and run with it.

Reform and financial reform of the administration and the financial management of the organization has been very important. And the new campus—we have a new administrative building for 500 people, and a new conference hall, which is an excellent facility and well-appreciated.

We’ve also gone forward with a new form of international cooperation, which is—in shorthand—platforms, not treaties. Treaties are important, but they are rare and they’re hard to get. But you can do a lot of international cooperation using platforms now, and we’ve done a huge amount of that in what we call our global infrastructure sector. Again, many colleagues have been contributing to this.

Finally, I suppose the digital transformation of the organization, which is ongoing, and is a big agenda item. We are well down the track, and I think pretty much ahead of other multilateral institutions in this area.

What are some of the biggest changes you have seen since coming to WIPO?
When I first started at WIPO, IP was relatively unknown. I remember being asked on a panel in San Francisco at a conference: ‘When you started in 1985, nobody had heard about IP, and now look, it’s in the newspapers, in the media every day. Did you foresee that?’ I said no. And that’s why I’m a bureaucrat!


When I first started at WIPO, IP was relatively unknown.

The change in the position of IP in the economy and in society—because you have to take the whole cultural sector into account as well—has been remarkable. It’s moved from the periphery of the economy and society to the center. And now we see that it’s the main item in the dispute between the world’s two largest economies. That’s a remarkable transformation that has happened over that period. It’s been really fascinating to watch.

A second thing is huge geopolitical change. In 1985, you had Europe and North America, and Japan just coming up in the 1980s. These were the innovation powers. Now Asia is the source of two thirds—66 percent—of all IP applications filed worldwide, and last year was the source of over 50 percent of international patent applications under the PCT. This is extraordinary change in a short period of time.

Now, how to look at that. A lot of people lament the decline of Europe and the decline of the United States. I wouldn’t look at it in those terms. I’d look at it as the rise of new competitors. We’re talking about changing shares here, not changing absolute numbers. The absolute numbers are not going down for the United States or Europe. The share is going down. So there’s an intensification of competition. Innovation is much more multipolar. We hope to see similar developments with Africa and Latin America in the future.

The third one is complexity. Everything is much more complex these days. Whatever way you look at it, whether you’re looking at things technologically or you’re looking at things economically, politically—interconnection has brought complexity, and complexity makes decision-making much more difficult. We see that all over IP. In the area of branding there is much more complexity—for instance, color brands. That means that policymaking in the field of IP is more difficult.

How is that reflected in the change in WIPO as an agency from 1985 to now?
We’re now much more economic, technical, and technologically based. We’re delivering a lot of our development services—office automation, technology, innovation support centers, access to publications—through technology now. What we see at WIPO is that it’s a more relevant institution, a more important institution. It is a more complex institution, and it’s more difficult to move forward.

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the historic TRIPS Agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement). How has the cooperation agreement between the World Trade Organization (WTO) and WIPO helped level the playing field and secure and enforce IP rights?


[WIPO] is a more complex institution, and it’s more difficult to move forward.

The agreement has been good in that the WTO did not really have many kinds of capacity-building activities in the field of IP. The TRIPS Agreement asked the world—and in particular the developing world—to take on a set of obligations in an area of public policy with which they were not necessarily fully familiar. So it required massive outreach to assist countries in being able to fulfill their obligations, and I think we played an important part in that, in cooperating with WTO but also in our own extensive capacity- building programs.

What we’ve seen since the TRIPS Agreement was concluded is—and this is a generalization of course—developing countries’ attitudes going from resentment to reluctant acceptance: ’We have no choice here so we accept it.’ And now we see many developing countries embracing IP in a new way. IP is not just a matter of damage limitation: ’We have to do this because major trading partners are telling us to do it. And if we don’t, we’re in trouble.’ They are embracing it more and asking the very relevant question: ’What can we get out of this?’

From various interactions with government officials in developing countries, we noted a stronger national ownership/adoption of IP. IP is considered as a tool to foster economic diversification and job creation.

Amongst other things, new questions arise. Look at the challenges posed with negotiations on traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, and IP. To my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that these are questions that require answers. We don’t have the answers yet. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to get the answers until we have engagement from the whole world, and I don’t think we’re really there yet because they’re very complex questions.

You’re speaking about the interface between two completely differently conceived knowledge systems, one based largely on contract and property, and another based on custodianship and kinship. We can’t change those things, that’s history, but the interface that arises between those two systems needs to be managed. In my view, you can’t just go and take a name which has a sacred status in one system and use it for a commercial product in another system. It’s managing the interface of these things in such a way that we have respect between the different systems. It’s a fascinating question. There is nothing more complex. It has many dimensions to it, but we really have to address it.

Do you have some thoughts about the future of multilateralism and of the global IP system?
Multilateralism certainly will undergo the most profound change. I wouldn’t put it down to one administration or one person. That’s an oversimplification. The current multilateral system of institutions and practices was invented in a world that was completely different 70 years ago. Compared to now, there was a completely different power configuration in the world. The architecture is suffering from ‘design fatigue.’ We have a Ford Model T that’s wandering around expressways and autoroutes, and it’s holding up the traffic! I think that’s apparent to everyone. We really have to find a way to start a process of fundamental reform of international relations and international cooperation, and that is not easy because there’s no appetite for that at the moment.

In relation to Brexit, the Intellectual Property Office of the United Kingdom recently published guidance that international trademark registrations protected in the European Union under the Madrid Protocol will no longer enjoy protection in the UK after Brexit. On exit day, these rights will be immediately and automatically replaced by UK rights. What is WIPO’s position on this, with regards to the creation of this new designation?


The current multilateral system of institutions is suffering from ‘design fatigue.’

We are a technical organization. That’s a huge strength, and our duty here is to be totally agnostic to the Brexit situation, but to facilitate results that work for the world. So we will absolutely facilitate the solution that is chosen by the UK and accepted by the EU.

Look back over the history of this organization. It’s nearly 140 years. WIPO has been through two world wars, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the reconfiguration of so many states around the world, the birth of new states—and if you look, in the nineteenth century, there were four international organizations that were founded, and I give you their current names—the names have changed in the course of time—the International Telecommunication Union, the World Meteorological Organization, the Universal Postal Union, and WIPO. Each of those is a technical organization and arguably performing a good job still, doing an essential task. For me, it’s a testimony to the strength and the endurance of technical international cooperation, because over the same period, the League of Nations was born and died, the United Nations was born and is, frankly, suffering. Brexit is another example of why it’s very important that technical cooperation remains technical and serves the needs.

Various WIPO external offices were formed during your time. How have they contributed so far to the achievement of the strategic goals of WIPO?
I should start by saying I can take some responsibility for this. There’s no consensus in the member states about external offices: how many, the role they should play, where they should be. It’s a big fight and that is unfortunate because I believe that external offices—at a very low cost—can perform an essential function in making WIPO a truly global organization.

These offices have enabled us to be present locally with a very small infrastructure, small office, small staff, who really give some outreach for the organization in those countries, and they’ve done a fantastic job.

We’ve noted increased interaction between the International Bureau and the private sector, including entities such as INTA. What are your views on how this cooperation and partnership can be strengthened going forward to meet our common objectives?
I think the interaction is extremely important—fundamental. We must embrace a much bigger role for ‘civil society,’ including the very important groupings that you get within civil society like INTA, where you have the major corporations of the world and practitioners of the world saying branding is a very important phenomenon in our economy, and serves a lot of fundamental functions in the economy.

For instance, we’re here to make sure that branding is properly ‘regulated,’—that it has a proper, respected place in the world and in the economy. I am a big fan of WIPO opening up to all sorts of groups, and we have been trying to do that.

Specifically, what can be done differently or better, to interact with WIPO?
It’s the regular discussions we have, and some of them are very, very regular, even once a week. All this operational, functional stuff is extremely important in keeping the machine going. Then, on the policy level, well, we’re stuck. We can’t move forward on the creation of new rules because there are some major players that don’t want to move forward that way. They want to move forward in different ways.

This is part of the crisis of multilateralism. If they want to make a rule, they’ll make it for themselves. It’s not just the United States. It would be a mistake to think it’s just that. It’s happening all over the place. The EU did not come to any multilateral instance to try to establish the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). But if data are not international, what is? This is a generalized situation for rulemaking, and I think that INTA is a very powerful organization, having a voice, saying to governments around the world: ‘We would like to see an international rule established for this, that, or the other thing’—whatever it might be. It’s very powerful. It’s absolutely necessary.

What were some challenges or lessons learned during your time at WIPO?
There’s been a lot of lessons for me. I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity. I’ve learned so much. I’d say one thing that it has taught me is, collaboration is better than doing it on your own. That is clear. And I tend to be a person who does it on his own. That’s a big lesson for me. It’s always better if you collaborate. The product is always better.

Number two is the continuing process of openness. It’s a fantastic opportunity in any international organization, and here I don’t make any distinction between public international organizations and private international organizations like INTA or industry.

What advice would you offer someone entering the field of IP?
The way I look upon IP is that it is a window onto what is happening in society and the economy. By definition, if you want to see what’s happening in science, technology, branding, marketing, design, or music, for example, it’s a great window.

What will you do next?
I’m not going to take on an executive role, not going to take on a role in which I’m working 100 percent of my time with one entity as an executive. However, I do hope to do a series of different things. Phase one is fixed. I will make the announcement when the time comes, but it’s a very exciting and challenging assignment.

Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of this article, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest.

© 2020 International Trademark Association