Human Rights and Intellectual Property: Conflict or Coexistence?

16 Pages Posted: 15 Oct 2003

See all articles by Laurence R. Helfer

Laurence R. Helfer

Duke University School of Law; University of Copenhagen - iCourts - Centre of Excellence for International Courts


Human rights and intellectual property, two bodies of law that were once strangers, are becoming increasingly intimate bedfellows. Over the past three years, human rights bodies within the United Nations have devoted unprecedented attention to intellectual property issues, including patented medicines, digital copyrights, technology transfers, economic, social and cultural rights, plant variety protection, and economic development. Unlike the approaches adopted in established intellectual property lawmaking organizations such as the WTO and WIPO, the new human rights approach to intellectual property is often critical of existing standards of protection and it seeks to address legal and policy issues that intellectual property treaty makers and legislators often ignore.

In this essay, I analyze two competing frameworks that governments, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations are using to conceptualize the intersection of human rights and intellectual property. The first approach views the two areas of law as in fundamental conflict, with strong intellectual property protection standards - in particular those of the TRIPs Agreement - undermining a broad spectrum of human rights. The second approach sees both areas of law as concerned with the same basic question: defining the appropriate scope of private monopoly power to give authors and inventors a sufficient incentive to create and innovate, while ensuring that the consuming public adequate access to the fruits of their efforts. The essay traces the evolution of these two competing approaches and explores their consequences for future international lawmaking.

Suggested Citation

Helfer, Laurence R., Human Rights and Intellectual Property: Conflict or Coexistence?. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Vol. 5, p. 47, 2003, Loyola-LA Legal Studies Paper No. 2003-27, Princeton Law and Public Affairs Working Paper No. 04-003, Available at SSRN: or

Laurence R. Helfer (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Dr.
Box 90360
Durham, NC 27708
United States
+1-919-613-8573 (Phone)


University of Copenhagen - iCourts - Centre of Excellence for International Courts ( email )

University of Copenhagen Faculty of Law
Karen Blixens Plads 16
Copenhagen S, DK-2300


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