Brazil, US Clash on Patent Enforcement

April 5, 2005

The US government has opted to postpone a review into trade benefits on Brazilian imports, in light of "initial positive steps" by Brazil's government in combating illicit copying of patented products and drugs. However, the decision comes at a time of increasing tensions over patent enforcement between the US and a consortium of developing countries led by Brazil.

The US move has no doubt come as a relief to Brazil, as the Generalised System of Preferences trade benefits programme covers roughly 17% of the country's exports, although so far sanctions have only been briefly applied on one occasion in the mid-1990s. Of greater concern is the growing debate over the international enforcement of intellectual property regulations in general, which is being played out at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in Geneva this week.

The centre of argument involves a Brazilian proposal, backed by 12 lower-income countries, including Argentina, Egypt and South Africa, that WIPO adopt measures preventing patent holders from using "anti-competitive practices," as well as provisions easing technology transfer and upholding government action in the public interest. This last proposal is likely to prove highly controversial, as Brazil has already threatened to break patents on a number of patented HIV/AIDS drugs if multinational drugmakers do not agree to voluntary licensing.

For its part, the US line has been that measures to accommodate developing countries should only include capacity building efforts, with the aim of improving national patent protection and registration regimes. While Brazil opposes an additional US proposal to extend patent terms, the country apparently supports capacity building measures, although it notes that patents should not be considered "an end in themselves." Brazil has also opposed a plan to create a new WIPO panel specifically to examine development issues.

As calls grow for greater exemptions to be made for developing countries on the issue, and the two sides' negotiating stances appear firmly opposed, a real consensus between Brazil and the US seems a distant prospect.