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Patent laws do little or nothing to help poor countries dig their way out of poverty, and could even make matters worse. That's the controversial conclusion of an independent commission on intellectual property rights appointed by the British government. Its report, launched recently in Geneva, contains 50 radical recommendations to help make these rights work to the advantage of poor countries. Britain's Department for International Development has already promised to look hard at the suggestions, but it's unclear whether the rest of the nternational community will listen. The World Trade Organization has persuaded most countries to sign an intellectual property rights (IPR) agreement that obliges them to impose Western style laws on everything from patents to copyrights by 2006. But the new report argues that these laws only benefit rich countries with strong traditions of invention, and do little to aid the transfer of technology to poor countries. The report argues that poor countries should be given a lot more flexibility so as to customize those laws, and up to a decade longer to do so. At present, many poor countries don't have intellectual property laws at all. That means local inventors can't get protection for their ideas, but it also means people can buy cheap versions of medicine or software that have been patented elsewhere. Since poor countries often have little to patent in the first place, the benefits of having no laws can outweigh the disadvantages.

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