As the African tech scene grows, it is imperative that inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs understand Intellectual Property (IP) laws. This may save against potential lawsuits when startups finally takes off. History has shown us the nasty side of such lawsuits with some tech gurus having to settle out of court. Sometimes these lawsuits may cost millions of dollars.
Despite the growing tech movement in Africa, the continent still exhibits a low record in IP application. In 2013 and 2014, Africa had a total of 29,800 Patent applications combined. In 2013 alone, Oceania had 36,600 applications. Oceania has the second lowest patent applications after Africa. Now, Africa is by no means short of innovation. The numbers reflect a lack of awareness and knowledge.
Evidently, something new and exciting is brewing in Africa. The continent habitats some of the world’s fastest growing economies. A digital revolution is ongoing and could potentially reduce poverty, boost agriculture and give the continent the competitive edge that it so desperately needs.
Intellectual Property Rights
Intellectual property may be in in the form of a patent, industrial design, utility model, copyright or trademark. Understanding IP rights is critical to the advancement of the African tech scene. IP categories include:
A patent for an invention is given to an inventor, granting them for a limited time exclusive rights to make, use or sell the invention. Patenting provides the right to exclude others from using it hence anyone intending to use the patent would require the permission of the inventor. A patent will not protect an idea. An inventor has to produce tangible descriptions of their idea by means of drawings, prototypes, records their research etc. Only then will the idea become an invention that is capable of patent protection. When a patent is granted, the invention becomes the property of the inventor. Like any other form of property or business asset, the patent can be bought, sold, rented or hired. Patents are territorial rights. This means that the laws that govern awarding and enforcement of patents differ from country to country.
Industrial designs are compositions of lines or colors or any three-dimensional forms which give a special appearance to a product or handicraft.
Utility models vary from country to country. A utility model is generally like a patent (see patent below). However, there is very little inventive substance required to gain IP rights for a utility model. The Utility model registration procedure is also very lax. Application and maintenance fees are also usually significantly lower.
Copyright is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps and technical drawings.
IP protection in Africa
There are a number of organisations in Africa that provide IP registration services. While countries like South Africa have a number of organisations offering IP registration services, most African countries still have challenges accessing such services. In most African countries innovators simply do not know about these things. Those who do may not even afford these services. Besides the organisations in the bigger countries like Nigeria and South Africa, there are two notable organisations that deal with patents, copyrights and trademarks in Africa. The two are ARIPO and OAPI.
The African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) is headquartered in Harare, Zimbabwe. The organisation has a pool of English speaking countries as members. ARIPO was setup to encourage technological advancements that support the economic and industrial development of its member countries. The organisation coordinates strategies that are beneficial to member countries.
The Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle (OAPI) also known as African Intellectual Property Organisation has its headquarters in Yaoundé, Cameroon. The majority of the 17 members are French speaking.
OAPI member states are:
- Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire. Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania,, Niger, Senegal, Togo