District-based Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox, the 110-attorney Washington intellectual property law firm, has started a first-of-its-kind practice that combines the tenets of human rights and intellectual property law.
Spearheaded by founding director and veteran attorney Jorge Goldstein, who specializes in health sciences, the pro bono practice aims to use patent and copyright laws to help indigenous groups in developing countries protect and leverage their right to native or regional intellectual property — such as medicinal plants, artwork and designs — that often get co-opted, patented and sold by multinational corporations, including pharmaceutical companies.
“If you are an indigenous tribe and you’ve got a cultural right like textile know-how, you’ve got a right to enjoy the fruits of your creation,” Goldstein said. “You are not subject to someone coming in, walking away with it and obtaining a patent.”
The new group is based on a concept that’s generated some buzz over the past several years: The economic right to one’s creations is a human right. Goldstein said the practice is an extension of the District-based legal nonprofit Public Interest Intellectual Property Advisers that was started 10 years ago.
PIIPA pairs intellectual property lawyers from around the world with governments, indigenous tribes and public interest groups in less-developed countries to exercise their IP rights. The group’s recent work includes representing the African Artists Collaborative to help African artists copyright their music and movies before they distribute them in the United States and Europe.
“A decade ago when PIIPA started, there was the perception that IP was a club used by the ‘haves’ of the world against the ‘have-nots,’” PIIPA co-founder Michael Gollin said. “Now there’s increasing recognition of using IP to protect local creative action.”
One of the first pro bono IP cases Goldstein worked on a decade ago came through PIIPA, and had him representing the Peruvian government’s IP agency that was working with local producers and exporters of the maca root, which is used as an aphrodisiac. After a foreign company bought the root at Peruvian markets, extracted the active ingredient, and patented it in the United States, Goldstein advised the Peruvian agency on how to challenge those patents and obtain licensing agreements to guarantee the right to continue exporting maca products abroad.
The practice group is in its infancy, but at least 35 attorneys are expressing interest in participating, Goldstein said.