Historically, intellectual property offices (IPOs) have played a rather passive and administrative role. This remains the case in most Africa countries where IPOs continue acting as registries for users seeking to secure exclusive rights over their intellectual property (IP) assets. But today we live in a world where change is constant and users can’t continue with current services that are built on aging systems. It can no longer be business as usual in the current dynamic, tech-driven and highly competitive globalised world. The notion of intellectual property is at the core of technological innovation, economic growth and industrial policies making . As such, innovation and intellectual property are intrinsically linked.
The most prevalent setup of an IPO in Africa is that of a small IP department running under a Ministry instead of a fully-fledged autonomous or semi-autonomous institution with its own budget and resources. African IP offices must be prepared to step out of the mundane administrative role and assume that of an integral part of their national innovation ecosystems. That means actively promoting innovation, knowledge exchange and technology transfer and feeding into national economic, social and cultural development goals.
It’s time to build an IP office of the 21st century, one that looks into the future!
Although an IP office of the 21st century must be tailor-made for each African country or region, there are common interests, processes and procedures shared by many. The modernisation approach to these remains the same. While priority should be focused on enhancing the registration and protection functions of IP offices, the role of the IP office in disseminating knowledge and promoting innovation should be strengthened. This is a critical public-interest role of the office that seems to receive less attention. Here are some of the measures that can add value to that public interest role and promote the use of the IP system:
Creating and curating free public forums where creators and right holders can pitch IP-protected innovations to potential commercialisation partners;
Knowledge sharing – creating online platforms publishing expired or lapsed patents. It should be made public that there are no IP restrictions on the exploitation of the technologies that relate to those lapsed patents.
The second bullet point warrants a separate article. It might be surprising to some but there is a lot of money being spent on R&D in Africa for issues that are readily and freely available in lapsed patents.
The role of the IP office of the 21st century should no longer be about administering IP laws, regulations and guidelines, but that of a contributor to the specific needs of the national economy through the IP system. There is no need to re-invent the wheel for African IP offices, partnerships and cooperation with established counterparts in other countries is a low hanging fruit. Innovation has become a global and interconnected process and no one country or organisation can fully innovate individually.
The IP Office as an Innovation Agency
The days of innovation being exclusively driven by western economies are long gone. Asian and African countries have been doing extremely well in that space. The latest statistics in the 2022 Global Innovation Index (GII) are solid proof.
I was closely following the recent 46th Session of the Administrative Council of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) in Maputo, Mozambique. The special guest at the event was World Intellectual Property Organization – WIPO Director General Mr. Daren Tang. In his remarks, he emphasised the need for IP offices to move from their standard roles to those of innovation agencies that push for the development and heritage aspects of IP in Africa. These remarks did not just point towards the IP office of the 21st century but to one that looks into the future!
Some IP offices continue to evolve from the exclusively administrative role to also becoming drivers and stewards of innovation. These offices have been playing a role in promoting IP as a medium of exchange in a knowledge economy and providing education on the effective use of IP. This role should also take centre stage in IP offices across Africa.
Efficiency and timeous service delivery continues to be on the doldrums for most African IP offices. There is a whole cocktail of factors but for the purposes of this section I will only discuss the human resources aspect. As mentioned above, we live in a world where change is constant and the same should apply to the staffing side of things. Of course, implementation of technology does not necessarily mean that there should be disruptions in the IP office workforce. Instead, there will be more need for multidisciplinary skills training. The IP office of the 21st century should be focused on the training and broadening skillsets of their staff members especially towards critical higher value work. This includes having professionally trained multi-disciplinary examiners who can effectively handle examinations, oppositions as well as hearings.