In May 2020, WIPO launched WIPO PROOF, the latest in the Organization’s suite of services to support businesses in the management of their innovative and creative assets. WIPO Director General Francis Gurry introduces the new service and explains how it can support innovators and creators in the digital economy. The Director General also reflects on the broader issue of data governance and the fundamental importance of innovation and creativity in tackling current economic and health challenges.
What is WIPO PROOF?
In practical terms, WIPO PROOF is like a digital notary. It provides irrefutable proof of the existence of a digital file at a given point in time. In the digital business environment, data needs to be safeguarded and WIPO PROOF helps to do that. Digital businesses are subject to vulnerabilities, including the loss or theft of information and data. WIPO PROOF addresses that vulnerability by providing reliable tamper-proof evidence of the existence of a digital file at a given moment in time. WIPO PROOF creates a digital fingerprint of the file and adds a time stamp to that record. When data files are formally documented in this way, it becomes more difficult for a third party to steal or later claim ownership over them. Such proof can also be critical in securing licensing deals and raising capital.
WIPO PROOF also allows those who contribute to the development of a work, a product, a research project and so forth, to provide proof of their participation. In the digital world, there are countless creative, technological and scientific ventures that involve a great deal of collaboration and the sharing of innumerable data files. For example, many musicians record their music in collaboration with artists in various parts of the world. One records the vocals, sends the digital file to another who adds the instrumentation, and so on. Using WIPO PROOF, artists can provide incontrovertible evidence of their contribution to the exercise. Such evidentiary proof can be extremely important for many individuals, companies and organizations engaged in innovation and creativity by showing that the digital file originated with the person who is purporting to be the owner.
Why is WIPO PROOF important for the digital world?
WIPO PROOF is an important development as it moves intellectual property protection further into the digital world. The economy is currently undergoing a huge transformation from industrialization to digitization. Most IP rights were developed for the industrial age. While, as statistics suggest, they remain relevant – large numbers of patent applications are filed for digital communications and information technologies, for example – classical IP rights do not necessarily cover all types of intellectual assets, especially with respect to safeguarding data. That makes WIPO PROOF a small but significant step in providing IP services that target the needs of the digital economy.
In practical terms, WIPO PROOF is like a digital notary. It provides irrefutable proof of the existence of a digital file at a given point in time.
Francis Gurry, WIPO Director General
Are similar services already available?
Yes. While the service does exist at the national level in certain countries, our market research clearly indicated a need for such a service to be offered by a trusted and impartial international authority. The intense competition surrounding intellectual property in all parts of the word underlines this need. That is why WIPO moved forward in developing WIPO PROOF. Imagine a scenario where two enterprises from two different countries that are experiencing tensions in the area of trade or technology, for example, are engaged in a court battle. If the enterprise in country A presents evidence in the form of a digital file with a date- and time-stamped fingerprint acquired in its own country to the courts of country B, it may not be respected as evidence or proof to the same extent as that provided by an impartial international authority.
Can WIPO PROOF support innovators and creators in other ways?
Yes, WIPO PROOF also addresses the needs of innovators and creators during the period prior to formalization of IP rights and can be useful in safeguarding intellectual assets at every stage of development, from concept to commercialization, whether or not they eventually become formal IP rights. Bringing a patentable invention or a creative work to maturity is preceded by a lot of work, and during that development phase, inventors, creators and indeed, startups, are quite exposed. In that phase, many will be pitching their ideas to different actors, including venture capitalists or large companies, to secure the financial backing they need to bring their product to market. While such activity is often governed by non-disclosure agreements, many smaller enterprises, startups and individuals do not have the legal advice to conclude such agreements effectively. But with WIPO PROOF they can document the existence of their intellectual asset, and thereby secure irrefutable proof that they controlled their idea or concept, or made a specific contribution to the development of a work, at a given point in time.
WIPO PROOF acknowledges that proof of the existence of data in the form of digital files can be very important in a digitized world where data are widely shared.
Francis Gurry, WIPO Director General
What is WIPO’s role in administering the service?
WIPO acts as a trusted authority and provides a user-friendly service for a modest fee to cover operating costs. At minimal cost, individual innovators, creators and startups anywhere in the world can establish a record of their work at a given point in time. They simply access the service via the WIPO PROOF website (and with just a few clicks, they can generate a WIPO PROOF token (a unique digital fingerprint with a time stamp) for their file, which, if the need arises, can prove the existence of their work at a given time. WIPO PROOF tokens issued in this way are valid indefinitely.
The service has been built to the highest global standards using robust industry-standard public key infrastructure and encryption technologies, and is backed with a business model that favors small players across the globe and WIPO’s credibility as a trusted provider of global IP services.
WIPO PROOF handles digital files, including data sets, in any format and size. WIPO does not copy or store the original file – which stays with the user of the service on their own device. WIPO simply certifies that it existed in that form and was in the possession of the user at a specific time.
Why did you launch the service now?
For some time, we have been thinking about the need to offer better protection for the huge amount of activity that takes place in the pre-formal IP rights space and indeed, for trade secrets, which are extremely valuable business assets, yet do not enjoy IP protection in the form of a registered right. WIPO PROOF allows us to do that. The pre-formal IP rights space and trade secrets are areas of particular vulnerability for small and medium enterprises and startups, which, of course, play an extremely important role in driving innovation and economic performance. As the digitization of business transactions and economic activity gathers pace, WIPO PROOF offers innovative and creative individuals and enterprises an additional tool with which to manage and safeguard their intellectual assets.
What has been the reaction so far?
All evidence shows that we have struck the right note in launching WIPO PROOF. After just two weeks, users from a wide range of countries across the globe had taken advantage of the service. This is an indication that WIPO PROOF fulfills an unmet need and provides a useful service, which people can make use of under appropriate circumstances. I think the uptake will be very good.
WIPO PROOF offers innovative and creative individuals and enterprises an additional tool with which to manage and safeguard their intellectual assets.
Francis Gurry, WIPO Director General
What impact will WIPO PROOF have on the global landscape for innovation and creativity?
WIPO PROOF acknowledges that proof of the existence of data in the form of digital files can be very important in a digitized world where data have value and are widely shared. WIPO PROOF makes a small but important contribution to the process of adapting existing incentive structures, which were forged in the industrial era, to foster innovation and creativity in the digitized world. Of course, many of the classical mechanisms still apply, but there are gaps. Safeguarding data is one of those gaps, which WIPO PROOF addresses.
At the “Road to Bern Second Dialogue: on Data Protection” in April, you spoke of the need for a comprehensive and coherent framework for data protection. Is WIPO PROOF a step towards creating such a framework?
The need for a comprehensive data governance framework points to the overwhelming complexity of the current governance architecture created by globalization and interconnectivity. No single actor can regulate a complex problem without collaboration. The same applies when it comes to protecting data, which is integral to the economic and social system as a whole. Data are multi-dimensional – some are of immense social and economic importance and value, and some are of great personal significance and value – and the effective protection of data will require coordination among many different entities and policy approaches. In that huge universe, WIPO PROOF offers a small but meaningful contribution towards helping to ensure the security and confidentiality of data.
How does WIPO PROOF complement WIPO’s global IP systems and services?
Our aim has been to create a full suite of business services for innovation and cultural creativity. Our international filing and registration systems for patents (the Patent Cooperation Treaty), trademarks (the Madrid System), industrial designs (the Hague System) and Geographical Indications (the Lisbon System) are the classical centerpieces of this offering. Over the past decade, these services have enjoyed increasing global participation (refer to Figure 1) and demand for them has surpassed global economic growth rates, which is an indicator of the commercial success of the innovation and creative sectors.
Source: A decade of growth for WIPO’s IP services, WIPO.
In 1994, we added dispute resolution services to our offering. If you are an innovative enterprise operating in the market, first you need protection, but then you need to be able to ensure that any dispute arising from the exploitation of your IP right can be resolved in an impartial and credible manner. We have seen significant growth in the uptake of our Arbitration and Mediation Services in recent years (refer to Figure 2). And now, as a response to the ongoing digital transformation, with WIPO PROOF we are offering a new service to help digital businesses and other actors safeguard their intellectual assets in the digital environment.
|Year||Number of cases||Number of domain names|
Source: Number of WIPO Domain Name Cases and Domain Names, WIPO.
As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19 and faces economic recession, why is it important for governments and companies to continue to invest in innovation?
In broad terms, if we want to get out of this crisis, and if we want to have new and effective vaccines and therapeutics, then we need innovation. Innovation is fundamental to the scientific, technological and health management of the crisis. Innovation is also fundamental to recovering from the economic recession caused by the necessary measures taken by governments to control the pandemic.
But how does such innovation come about?
It is a very complex process involving a multiplicity of institutions and actors, from educators and the educational system as a whole, through to venture capitalists and financiers. It also has an international dimension. UNESCO estimates that around 70 percent of global R&D is funded and performed by the private sector and 30 percent by the public sector. The IP system is the glue that holds all the different players across the innovation landscape together, providing them with the confidence to invest safely in intellectual production, innovation and creativity and the security that their market position will be protected against misuse or misappropriation. And in the current crisis there is an additional dimension, which needs to be taken into account, namely, the fundamental humanitarian considerations raised by health technologies. In dealing with international emergencies like COVID-19, frameworks already exist at the international and national levels to facilitate access to needed medical technologies in appropriate circumstances and on affordable terms. We are now seeing huge investment by both the public and the private sector in the development of vaccines, therapeutics, contact tracing applications and so forth. Therefore, fostering the innovation that is needed means working with the complexity of the innovation landscape as a whole and engaging with all players, public and private, to develop solutions to the global economic and health challenges facing humanity. Simplistic approaches are naïve and won’t work.