This week, Daren Tang emerged as the presumptive choice to be the next director general of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Tang, the chief executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS), was nominated by WIPO’s coordination committee on Wednesday and will take the reins in October, pending the assent of the full general assembly in May.

Tang will be the first representative of an Asian country to run WIPO. The timing of his election is fitting given that more than half of all applications under the WIPO-administered Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) now originate from this region. Japan, South Korea and Singapore are also among the fastest-growing sources of trademark filings through the Madrid System, another key WIPO function.

Beyond his country of origin, there is much to recommend Tang personally for the role. He is “a lawyer who thinks like a businessman”, as one attorney recently told our sister platform WTR. Tang has spoken at several IPBC Southeast Asia conferences in Singapore and he lives up to his “chief executive” title at IPOS, speaking more like the boss of a tech company than a career bureaucrat. If anyone can inject an ethos of innovation into a UN agency, it is him.

His first task, however, will be helping WIPO stakeholders move past a bruising election campaign.

Over two rounds of voting this week, Tang prevailed over second-place contender Wang Binying, a longtime WIPO official from China. The Chinese government lobbied hard for Wang, eager to cement its intellectual property bona fides with the prestigious post. Tang was identified in media reports as the favoured candidate of the United States, and the usual United Nations politicking took over from there.

US legislators openly objected to Wang’s candidacy, and commentators expressed worry about the integrity of confidential information related to unpublished PCT applications should a Chinese official assume the mantle at WIPO. Concerns were also raised about WIPO’s relationship to China under the current leadership of Francis Gurry.

However legitimate you might think those concerns were, they were seen as “bullying and interference” by many in China. As the strident state-run news source Global Times wrote, nobody objected to Wang’s personal character, professionalism or 28-year experience within WIPO – only her country of origin.

Based on some of the social media reaction to Tang’s win in China, many IP professionals there are still smarting from what is seen as a coordinated effort by the United States and its allies to politicise the selection process and drag Wang’s (and China’s) name through the mud.

So Tang faces the challenge of gaining the trust of WIPO’s fastest-growing group of stakeholders and building a bridge between two world powers that have made intellectual property a key field of competition. He may be uniquely situated to do so – he speaks both English and Chinese fluently, and represents a country that boasts good relationships with both sides of the argument.

But Tang’s term, if it is to be a success, will not just be about playing referee between the US and China. Each of the last two DGs – Australia’s Francis Gurry and Sudan’s Kamil Idris – has contrived to involve IP’s top global body in multiple embarrassing scandals. It helps that Tang comes from outside WIPO and from a civil service with a squeaky-clean reputation – but he will still have to work hard to restore the trust of all WIPO’s member states, as well as many who work inside the organisation itself.

If he can do that, Tang has a chance to shake things up at WIPO like no other director general has before. His most distinct trait has always been his eagerness to fundamentally re-assess what role government IP offices should play in the modern economy. As he told IAM in a 2017 interview:

We have to evolve into innovation agencies, using our expertise, regulatory powers and networks to shape an environment that encourages people and companies to create economic and social value, and reward them for doing so.

IPOS may not have fully achieved that vision during Tang’s tenure, but it was a consistent source of novel and interesting initiatives, and it always clearly communicated the idea that IP is about value and not law. Tang’s tenure at WIPO should give him every chance to preach that message to the world’s biggest economies.

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