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African Entrepreneurs Slowly Waking Up To Intellectual Property Rights

African Entrepreneurs Slowly Waking Up To Intellectual Property Rights

John Boniface Maina, a Kenyan artist popularly known as JB Maina, is no stranger to the entertainment news pages, but in March he achieved the feat of making it to the top page.

But it was not for his music. Rather, he successfully managed to get a $176,000 settlement from Safaricom for copyright infringement. Safaricom is the largest and most profitable telecommunications company in East and Central Africa.

Maina argued that the telecom benefitted by using his popular songs as callback tunes without his permission, a charge Safaricom denied.

The matter was settled out of court but it brought to light the legal minefield that companies could be walking and at the same time showed artists that knowing their intellectual property rights pays, literally.

The case shed light on how companies, artistes, developers and lawyers in the region risk losing millions for using works of arts, trademarks and other forms of intellectual property without their creators’ permission.

In light of this, companies are beginning to become proactive, not willing to wait until they are slapped with a lawsuit for breaching copyright laws.

It is for this reason that U.S. technology giant Microsoft decided to set up a portal that allows developers to protect their content.

Microsoft launched Microsoft 4Africa IP Hub, a digital intellectual property (IP) portal to offer developers and independent software vendors a chance to protect and commercialize their innovation.


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The firm said that as more products roll out, the need for protecting work is becoming more relevant.

“Most African innovators function on the premise that the idea is theirs until someone else takes it to market, or duplicates it,” said Louis Otieno, director for Legal and Corporate Affairs, at the launch of Microsoft 4Africa in June.

“As Africa’s innovation continues to flourish, the future remains uncertain if these promising ideas are not supported and protected properly.”

Microsoft has teamed with Coulson Harney, one of the most reputable law firms in East Africa, which will handle all the legal work for 4Africa IP Hub.

Intellectual Ignorance

Lawyers say that many firms in the region are beginning to appreciate how important protecting their work is but this has not been the case in the past.

Lawyers interviewed by AFKInsider say that many startups put much effort into creating products and services but are unaware of the intellectual property laws which in many cases act as insurance against others who may want to leech on an idea.

Anne Karanu, a partner at Nairobi-based law firm MMC Africa, said there is a growing need for entrepreneurs to realize that patents, industrial designs and trademarks are not just documents but insurance — pretty much like a title deed.

“Why would you want someone to ride on your goodwill?” Karanu said.

Similar to Coulson Harney, MMC Africa shepherds other developers working at Nailab, an incubator for startups.

Karanu says a common mistake is having a trademark that is too obvious, or simply put, a trademark that tells the average person what the product does.

“The more unique your name is, the stronger the trademark,” Karanu told AFKInsider.

While this goes against marketing ethics, in the legal world, the more distinctive a trademark, the stronger the protection.

African entrepreneurs also have to realize that the earlier they start protecting their work, the better.

More local universities have put up incubators for students who have that spark of genius. Safaricom and JB Maina’s copyright infringement case may not be the only major case to splash the newspaper pages, but evidence shows African entrepreneurs have a long way to go.

Data from the World Intellectual Property Organisation shows there are few patent applications from Africa.

As of 2012 South Africa had 608 patent applications while Kenya had 123. There were no patent applications from Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia or Mauritius that year. This is a drop in the ocean compared with the U.S., which had 268,782 patent applications in 2012.