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Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The politics of IP conferences in India

The IPKat is delighted to receive this guest post from long time Katfriend and sometime blogger Prashant Reddy (details at the end of the post).

Many years ago, George Washington University’s law school used to hold a prominent conference on intellectual property law in India as a part of its ‘India Project’. The stated aim of the GWU IP conferences was to foster a discussion, dialogue and knowledge on IP policies and was quite popular on the conference circuit until it came within the crosshairs of several activists belonging to numerous NGOs working in the IP space.

In an open letter to the Indian Government in 2010, a number of Indian NGOs made scandalous allegations against the GWU organised conference, most of which implied that GWU was allowing itself to be used as a tool of advocacy by industries that were sponsoring the conference and that the conference was promoting a certain US centric view of IP. The presence of Indian judges and bureaucrats at the conference was also objected to, the letter said “Industry led initiatives with the Indian judiciary are considered unethical and unacceptable.” GWU rebutted these allegations and made it very clear that industry was not allowed to set the agenda at the conference.

Since the GWU controversy, Indian NGOs have made such arguments repeatedly and they have usually been successful in creating enough controversy to keep public officials away from any conference involving industry participation. For example, in 2013, five Indian activists sought the recusal of a Supreme Court judge hearing the famous challenge mounted by Novartis over its Glivec patent because the judge had attended a conference sponsored by the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPOA) where he had submitted an entirely non-controversial paper on IP in India. Notwithstanding the flimsy allegations, the judge in question recused himself without giving any reasons. Last year, a scheduled visit by an IPOA delegation to India ran into similar rough weather after Indian NGOs objected to the delegation meeting judges of the Delhi High Court and the IPAB – the protests were successful since the meetings were cancelled, again without any reason. Earlier this year, when Assocham, an industry chamber held a conference on Standard Essential Patents (SEPs), Indian NGOs objected to the Chairperson of the Competition Commission of India (CCI) attending the conference because Ericsson, which is a litigant before the CCI, was one of the sponsors of the conference. The Chairperson ignored the protests and attended the conference. Public officials who are worried of their public image, will do anything to avoid controversy – the strategy therefore is to create a controversy through the press and then sabotage the event.

The arguments made by these Indian NGOs against the industry and the GWU conference clearly do not apply to conferences organised by them despite the fact that like industry, they too have certain ideological positions on IP. For example, the Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore (CIS) a wealthy NGO whose name has appeared in some of the letters above, including those against GWU and the ASSOCHAM conference, was one of the co-organisers of this year’s Global Congress on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest, held in Delhi. This conference bills itself as the “the most significant event on the calendar for scholars and policy advocates working on intellectual property from a public interest perspective.” And the theme for this year’s conference was “Three Decades of Openness; Two Decades of TRIPS”.  In the words of the organisers, “The theme juxtaposes the beginnings of an aspect of a culture of Openness with that of the establishment of minimum standards of intellectual property protection and the carving of limitations and exceptions within these standards.” The conference has traditionally never called speakers or lawyers from IP creating industries since the focus of the conference is on lowering IP standards. Listed on this year’s speakers list were three former Registrars of Copyrights, who are still serving in the Indian Government albeit in different positions – at least one continues to be in the DIPP, which is the Government of India’s main department that formulates IP policy. Also on the list was Justice Ravindra Bhat of the Delhi High Court who has delivered several high profile IP judgments. Given the stated objectives of this Conference, it is not too difficult to imagine the kind of interactions that these public officials had with the other speakers. Obviously activist NGOs like CIS, which have previously objected to public officials attending industry events, didn’t think there was anything wrong in inviting public officials to such a conference featuring speakers with a particular view of IP law, and rightly so – public officials should be allowed to have a wide range of interactions with all kinds of stakeholders, no matter what the agenda of the conference. Mud-slinging purely on the basis of the conference’s sponsors is immature and silly.

One of the results of this culture of objecting to any kind of industry funding of conferences is that we see very few conferences where opposing camps invite each other to discuss and debate ideas. As a result, there are very few IP conferences in India featuring a diverse speaker list with participants holding forth opposing viewpoints. Several of the industry conferences feature speakers only from the industry, while events like the Global Congress on IP and the Public Interest have absolutely no representation from the IP creating industry and the organising committee’s attitude to industry viewpoints was in clear display when they refused Oxford University Press (OUP) permission for hosting a stall at the venue of the conference because OUP is involved in a very high profile copyright litigation with Delhi University (DU) on the issue of photocopying course-packs without payment of royalty. The DU photocopy case was one of the topics of discussion at the conference and apparently the organisers didn’t want OUP books being sold at the venue, while the case was being discussed inside. I spoke to the OUP staff in Delhi and they told me that they were planning to showcase some of the recent scholarship by Indian scholars who were speaking at the event, such as The Access Regime: Patent Law Reforms for Affordable Medicines by Feroz Ali. OUP stalls are a regular feature at Indian conferences and are very often the only marketing/advertising done for academic books in India. It is something of a contradiction to host speakers who have published their works with OUP but refuse OUP permission to market the books of these very speakers at the event. Such contradictions are a reminder of how bizarre the debate on IP can become in India.   

IP conferences in India have not always been such one-sided affairs. In the past, academia who don’t have the baggage of the activists or the industry, have held some conferences with a diverse speaker list. In 2009, Prof. N.S. Gopalakrishnan of CUSAT, a university in Kerala, held a very interesting conference on copyright law which had healthy participation with a proportional representation of speakers from academia, the Bar, the government and the NGOs. In 2012 Prof. Shamnad Basheer while at NUJS, a university in Kolkata, hosted a conference on the new amendments to Indian copyright law with a diverse speaker list that featured representation from all quarters. Unfortunately however Indian academia remains in an impoverished state when compared to the deep pockets of the activist community or the industry. Unless we witness a miracle in the near future, IP conferences in India will continue to be lopsided affairs serving as centres of propaganda rather than forums for discussion and debate between opposing viewpoints.   

The writer is a lawyer and can be contacted at preddy85[at] 

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