TRIPS is the most comprehensive global agreement ever concluded in the field of intellectial property. It contains provision which provide minimum standards for each protected branch of intellectual property, including the protection of copyrights, patents, trademarks, geographical indications, layour designs and trade secret as well as unfair competition. Under TRIPS, each of these brances is defined: the subject matter to be protected, the rights to be granted and permissible exceptions to those rights, in addition to the minimum duration protection periods. For creating this unified consensus regarding the approach in dealing with intellectual property protection, some referred to TRIPS as "one of the success stories of the Uruguay Round".
The WTO's agreement on Trade Related Aspects on Intellectual Property Rights attempts to strike a balance between the long-term social objective of providing incentives for future inventions and creation, and the short-term objective of allowing people to use existing inventions and creations. The agreement covers a wide range of subjects, from copyright and trademarks, to integrated circuit design and trade secrets. Patents for pharmaceuticals and other products are only part of the agreement.
The balance works in three ways:
- Invention and creativity should provide social and technological benefits. Intellectual property protection encourages inventors and creators because of future benefits that they can earn from their creativity. This encourages new inventions such as new drugs, whose development costs are extremely high, hence private rights also bring social benefits.
- Intellectual property can also serve social goals by allowing other people to study patented inventions, which helps in technological progress, dissemination and transfer. After patent expiration, the invention becomes available for other to use, thus avoiding "re-inventing the wheel".
- The TRIPS agreement provides flexibility for governments to amend the protection granted in order to meet social goals. For Patents, it allows governments to make exceptions to patent holders' rights such as in national emergencies, anti-competitive practices, or if the right-holder does not supply the invention, provided certain conditions are fulfilled. For pharmaceutical patents, the flexibility has been clarified and enchanced by the 2001 DOHA Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, and the 2003 decision enabling countries that cannot make medicines themselves, to import pharmaceuticals made under compulsory license.