Convergence Of Who’s Who In IP, Innovation, Public Interest In Africa

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CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – Academics, advocates, lawyers, government officials and others meeting this week helped launch several new books and research tools to better understand the relationship of intellectual property, development and social issues. In particular, discussion in the early part of the conference focussed on a book revealing evidence from extensive primary research on the ground in 13 countries across the continent.

The Open African Innovation Research (Open A.I.R.) conference and the Global Congress on IP & the Public Interest is taking place in Cape Town from 9-13 December. Funding for the Open A.I.R. project comes from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and Germany’s Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

The congress, now in its third year, is a who’s who of advocates in the access to knowledge and public health fields who are interested in intellectual property issues. But it increasingly is reaching beyond that perspective.

Prof. Tobias Schonwetter, head of the IP Unit at the host University of Cape Town, opened the conference by saying the past two such meetings, in Washington, DC and Rio de Janeiro, had a big impact, and that this year, “I have no doubt that our voice will be heard again.”

But he pointed to the need to overcome a “dichotomy” between the private and public sectors, which in fact are increasingly converging. He said he hoped this event would be the start of reaching out better.

Schonwetter noted that in November at an industry-led IP conference in Durban, South Africa (IPW, Developing Country Policy, 25 November 2013), private sector did not respond to his remarks that IP needs to better consider social costs. He said people working on these issues need to do a better job of explaining.

“Our value proposition to the private sector is somewhat blurry at this point,” said Schonwetter. He noted that the Open A.I.R. project is using Africa as a proxy for bigger issues that can apply anywhere.

While industry does not appear to be in attendance among the hundreds of participants, there are many lawyers and academics, and the World Intellectual Property Organization is here, along with representatives from the African regional organisations, and national government officials.

Two IP-related publications were launched this week. The publications may be accessed here.

The newly arrived book called Innovation & Intellectual Property: Collaborative Dynamics in Africa, published by UCT Press, is a rare look at local practices related to IP in a variety of economic sectors in Africa. A second publication released was Knowledge & Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future, which was discussed on the second day.

In the Collaborative Dynamics book, researchers collected evidence on different types of IP in nine African countries: Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. The book contains detailed case studies and theoretical discussion on issues such as considering a legal trust model for the Kukula healers’ traditional knowledge commons, geographical indications options for Ethiopian coffee and Ghanaian cocoa, the digital commons, open scholarship modalities and copyright in Kenya, and the effects of the South African IP regime on generating value.

In framing the Open A.I.R. component, book co-editor Schonwetter said people are moving away from the paradigm that the more protection you have, the better, and are questioning the benefits to society. They recognise the important role played by IP, but look at whether it is an impediment or a help.

Total openness is not required to make development and innovation happen in Africa, he said, but they are trying to find what role IP really plays, looking at what works, using IP in creative ways to the benefit of society.

A key point the project found was that it is often heard that the global South must be less innovative because they have fewer patents. “I just don’t think that’s true,” Schonwetter said. For instance, the informal sector is one of the major employers, and does not reflect in the IP system.

He later said the point may have been reached where even if infrastructure is in place, there is a question of content, making IP increasingly important.

The book, he said, is not comprehensive but a starting point.

Co-editor Chidi Oguanaman, a Nigerian IP expert who is a professor at the University of Ottawa, echoed that, saying that people have suggested that “the only innovation in Africa is traditional knowledge.”

In the project, researchers wanted to identify the “traction point” where IP starts to make a difference in African economies, he said. They found that Africa a “quite diversified” continent on IP. So they went in and had first-hand interactions with people to see what they have used. Then they encountered a metrics problem of how to measure innovation in these environments.

The project was an attempt to hear African voices on innovation and intellectual property, he said.

Co-editor Jeremy de Beer, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, later told Intellectual Property Watch that the book is remarkable because research rarely looks across fields of IP, disciplines, regions and industrial sectors. The book is “a collection of case studies based on three years of empirical research by dozens of researchers from across disciplines, who conducted hundreds of interviews, analysed thousands of survey responses and uncovered evidence of vibrant innovation and rich creativity in diverse contexts,” he said. 

Prof. de Beer said the work is a contribution because of the diversity, ranging from economists, library specialists, lawyers, political scientists and others all having used research methods from their disciplines, looking at issues such as publicly funded research in South Africa, formal and informal sector interaction in Kampala, biofuels in Mozambique and Egypt, and putting them in the context of a survey of 44 different patent offices. On top of that it looks at traditional knowledge in Kenya and South Africa.

“That’s really not done,” de Beer said. “The reason we did this was to understand that dynamic forms of collaboration really are on the continent.”

Connecting ICTs to Development

Also starting the conference were authors of a new book called “Connecting ICTS to Development,” which is filled with information and lessons from a project of many years funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

The book contains chapters on access and usage of information and communications technologies (ICTs), economic opportunities, intellectual property and access to knowledge, social inclusion, e-health, e-government and more. Laurent Elder, Richard Fuchs, and Heloise Emdon, among the co-editors, presented the book this week. They said they found that the digital divide was not only access to telecoms (“the pipes”), but also access and re-use of information.

In remarks, Elder said the ideal would be to be able to understand in a sectorally specific way which regulations are effective. He gave an example from the book of Onno Purbo, who showed how spectrum regulation can greatly increase access to the internet. Purbo would hack into networks in order to provide access to hundreds of thousands or millions of people in Indonesia, calling it “unlegal,” or as Elder called it, “pre-legal.”

Eventually, Purbo convinced the Indonesian government to allow unlicensed use of the 2.4 GHz spectrum, which provides wireless access to data and voice communications in the “last mile” of connection. Soon afterward the regulation change, more than a 1,000 internet points of presence sprang up per month, according to the book. Fuchs referred to Purbo as a “liberation technologist.”

WIPO Gets Involved

Herman Ntchatcho, senior director of the WIPO Department for Africa and Special Projects, was one of the first keynote speakers, offering the WIPO perspective. But he did say that WIPO might consider helping to fund the next stage of this project, after a paper on the project might be presented at the next meeting of the WIPO Committee on Development and IP (CDIP), where one Development Agenda Recommendation relates to the informal sector.

Ntchatcho’s remarks included that WIPO works in African in the context of IP and development, and that IP can do more to help least-developed countries and developing countries to reach the UN Millennium Development Goals and the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals.

WIPO’s engagement in Africa is underpinned by two things: leadership and relevance. He said WIPO is playing a role in helping countries develop IP laws, and countries have to show flexibility and adapt their laws.

Ntchatcho noted that IP strategy finally adopted in a country will not be identical to the one of its neighbours, as each must take stock of its assets and develop a strategy.

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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