Protecting African creatives: The importance of intellectual property law for SMEs

By Daniel Kamau Anti-Piracy Lead Microsoft Sub-Saharan Africa

Simon spent months teaching himself how to code. He dreams of having his own app development business, and has poured all his energy into his flagship offering. He hopes his smartphone app will one day revolutionise Kenya’s educational landscape.

Just when Simon is preparing to launch his app, he learns a large software development company copied his idea. The app is functional and more than 500 people are using it. The company has made 16 500 shillings so far. It’s clear the company has profits in mind, rather than improving access to education.

You see, Simon didn’t consider the consequences of discussing his app with a stranger while waiting in line at the bank. He also was not aware of the importance of legally protecting his idea through copyright.

Intellectual property (IP) theft is a form of economic crime. It affects one in three organisations across the world, according toPricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC’s) 2014 Economic Crime Report. Even more worrying is that half of all economic crime occurs in Africa, and that cybercrime, which is closely linked to IP theft, is on the increase. Frost & Sullivan predicts that smartphone usage in Africa will increase by 40% each year until 2017, along with data growth of around 119% per year. This means more Africans will discuss their ideas in the public domain – and will be at risk for IP theft.

World IP Day, on 26 April, aims to raise awareness of the importance of protecting IP. It also hopes to promote discussion of IP in encouraging innovation and creation. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the progress and wellbeing of humanity rests on its capacity to create and invent new works in the areas of technology and culture. This, in turn, spurs economic growth, fuels the progress of humankind, leads to the creation of jobs and new industries, and enhances quality of life.

However, when IP is stolen, the knock-on effects are severe, according to WIPO – especially for small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs). When trade secrets or the knowledge of employees, for example, falls into the wrong hands, a business loses money through a drop in sales, which in turn impacts the economy through tax losses and may also result in job cuts. Further, other manufacturers lose trust in the market and the country experiences a decrease in investment. It will be difficult to prove that someone stole your idea, and when they pass your knowledge off as their own, your reputation decreases.

IP theft stifles growth in other areas too – larger organisations are not likely to invest in research and development of a product or service that is not protected. This means human development and evolution is also curbed and the market is opened up to fake products and scams – imagine the consequences if someone counterfeited a drug, but left out a crucial ingredient. Loss of life becomes a serious concern.

Countries with strong IP legislation have strong economies, but information on IP law is often hard to find in Africa. Most African countries have small IP professions so there is little incentive for any publisher to issue specialist law journals and related works. Yet Africa needs to create its own IP to be competitive. A potential goldmine lies in creating African solutions to African problems. Other countries with similar challenges can then adapt these to their unique situations. This is an example of the benefit of creation being more widely felt.

SMEs don't always have access to expensive legal advice and may not understand copyright law. Yet, their knowledge is important to competitors. Their IP differentiates them in the market and gives them a competitive edge, so educating themselves on IP protection is an investment on its own. It will prevent others from copying a business’ products and will enable it to sell and profit from its creative efforts. But it goes beyond that – IP protection builds trust and loyalty among customers – and no amount of money can buy that.

To learn more about intellectual property law and how to protect your assets, visit the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization website.


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