The Korean patent office, while now one of the largest and most advanced governmental offices worldwide, has a short history. The Korean Patent Law was enacted in December of 1961. It has undergone many changes since that time in response to the changing conditions in industry and intellectual property, both domestic and international. The most recent amendments were attached in July of 1996. They were put in to harmonize Korean patent law with the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement set up by the World Trade Organization.
Patents have a twenty year lifespan. Korean patent law has a history of being lax. Because of this, patent law is an integral aspect of any Free Trade Agreement discussion with another country. For instance, South Korea has been urged to strengthen its intellectual property rules in order to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union.
Talks are underway between the EU and the Seoul government aimed at achieving a far-reaching liberalization of commerce between the two sides. In a report approved on 20 November by the European Parliament's international trade committee, the enforcement of IP rights in Korea is described as a priority for a successful accord.
The negotiations are being conducted by officials with the European Commission, rather than the Parliament, but the latter institution is expecting to be asked to give its assent before an agreement comes into effect. The committee's report said that Commission officials have shown a "welcome readiness" to keep the Parliament abreast of the negotiations by providing it with confidential documents and briefings.
EU officials are particularly eager to open up the pharmaceutical markets in Korea to Western imports. At present, Korea does not recognize the authorization of drugs that have been tested and certified outside its borders. In September, EU officials proposed that Korean drug regulators should be legally obliged to respect the so-called data exclusivity enjoyed by pharmaceutical firms for a number of years.
Data exclusivity covers the length of time which information used to make a medicine under patent cannot be used by manufacturers of generic drugs without the rights holder's permission. David Martin, a Scottish Labour member of Parliament (MEP) who drafted the report on Korea, said that the barriers to pharmaceutical exports there "need to be addressed."
Still, he argued that no clauses should be inserted into the agreement that would hinder Korea from availing itself of flexibilities in the World Trade Organization Agreement on Traderelated Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which allow developing countries import cheap generic versions of patented medicines for public health reasons.
French Green MEP Alain Lipetz proposed an amendment to Martin's report urging that "onerous and undue requirements to patent protection with a bearing on public health" should not be included in an eventual agreement. Data exclusivity of six to ten years should be avoided, Lipetz added, as this "would considerably delay the manufacture of generic medicines" and would have an impact on "access to affordable drugs for crucial life-saving therapies."
But the amendment was rejected by a majority of the committee. The report will now be submitted to the entire 785-member assembly for its approval. Korea is among the countries that pledged last month to take part in efforts to establish an Anti- Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The 27-country EU, the United States, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and Switzerland also have agreed to take part in those efforts, designed to crack down on the alleged flouting of copyrights and patents on everything from luxury goods to chemicals. Separately, European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said this week that counterfeiting can have lethal consequences.
"When people reach for chemicals that are fake or medicines that are not real, they are at a very great risk of killing themselves," he said. "This is not just about Gucci handbags in fake markets in Shanghai. It is a real life and death issue."
The Commission recently reported that 2.7 million allegedly counterfeit medicines were seized at EU borders last year - an increase of 384 percent from 2005.
The European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines, a group claiming to lobby for patient's rights, said this week that there is evidence of counterfeit medicines being a problem throughout Europe and not just in Eastern Europe, as is commonly believed.