The World Trade Organization agreed on Tuesday to extend a waiver that frees some lower developed countries, Cambodia included, from enforcing intellectual property laws for another eight years, a WTO official confirmed yesterday.
Proponents hailed the decision as a means to allow Cambodia access to products and technology needed for development, while critics took the slightly different view that the lack of protections would stifle economic growth.
Concerned by the amount of pirated products in Cambodia, Pily Wong, a Microsoft representative in the country and President of the Information Communication and Technology Business Association in Phnom Penh, says the WTO extension can deter foreign investment, limit innovation and create an unequal playing field for local competitors.
“Local companies are making software for point of sale or payroll, but when they go to visit customers, those customers say, 'why would I buy your software when I can buy international or US-made software for $2?'” he said.
On the other side of the issue is Professor Brook Baker of Boston-based Northeastern University, who said waiver negotiations amounted to “relentless bullying” by US and EU interests.
He says intellectual property laws can block access to affordable educational resources, inhibit the transfer of technology and restrict gains in important areas of development, such as agriculture and climate change.
“For Cambodia, it may now reconsider some of the commitments its made during its accession agreement to the WTO, and review any existing IP legislation to determine whether such legislation is in its interests or not,” Baker said.
Products commonly protected by intellectual property are books, music, software and films. Pharmaceuticals, which have their own 2016 deadline, are excluded from Tuesday's decision.
Microsoft's Wong said access to pirated goods may help transfer skills more cheaply in the short term, but without foreign investment, there will be a lack of sustainable employment opportunities.
“If not protected, companies like Apple, for example, have a lot of intellectual property they need to protect in the production process, so they won't be setting up plants here because they are afraid that their intellectual property will get stolen” he said. Var Roth San, director of the intellectual property department at the Ministry of Commerce, welcomed the extension.
“I do believe that if our economy keeps growing, we definitely can meet the deadline.”
Roth San said that while it isn't difficult in establishing rules through laws and regulations, the lack of resources to implement them is the challenge.
“Why don’t we implement it now? Because we don’t have enough human resources, and we don’t have enough materials, and our budget is limited so we cannot go everywhere to teach people . . . about intellectual property," he said.
The WTO's decision marks the second time it has extended the waiver since 2006. The new deadline is July 1, 2021.