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Updated May 26, 2021


More can be done to reinforce intellectual property rights in Africa

African economies will need to rebalance in the post-Covid-19 era, with creativity and ingenuity as high priorities. In some respects, the current pandemic is the most geopolitically significant non-military challenge to shape global affairs since World War II. In the years immediately following 1945, Europe, Japan and North America were able to grow rapidly, in part by hitching their sails – for several decades- to affordable oil exports from the Middle East. Just as petroleum fueled global economies throughout the 20th century, big data is the currency of the 2000’s. Given the strategic necessity for the free flow of oil to continue through the world’s maritime chokepoints (e.g. Suez and Panama Canals), big data must keep stream unabated. But big data is not enough: we need innovation and new patents to fuel development in a post-covid, de-globalized world. And Intellectual Property (IP) will be a fundamental currency too.

In some parts of the world, like Latin America, we have already seen things done very different. In Venezuela, the government announced very high fees for patents in 2017 which is seen as a form of market protectionism but, will also further isolate Venezuela’s economy as well as hurting entrepreneurs. This is a symptom of Venezuela's over-reliance on oil and gas at the expense of energy innovation of startups, SMEs and others. But Africa should not follow this path. Actually, IP laws can help creating jobs in African countries. Africa should therefore bolster innovation, supporting new creative entrepreneurships through IP (SMEs provide 80% of African jobs) to deal with future challenges of demographic bomb and climate change, and use the opportunities of demographic dividend and green revolution in the future for the creation of smart cities as well as smart cultivations and industries.

Another oil-rich state could prove therefore a model for African countries seeking to bolster their own strong intellectual property sectors: Saudi Arabia. While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is practically synonymous with oil, it is rapidly becoming an important IP hub. The Kingdom is moving well beyond its conventional tropes of a desert monarchy with traditional cultural norms. The KSA of the 21st century is undergoing tremendous change, emerging as a new center of synergy for international sporting events including Formula One Racing, boxing, golf and tennis. And the Kingdom is also an emerging epicenter for becoming the regional authority in the area of IP; but it has also become a regional vanguard for intellectual property and the global fight against digital piracy.

Thus far in 2021, they have shut down more than 378 websites that transmit football games, movies and series, as well as about 2.5 million items of tape material of illegal broadcast that violate IP rights. KSA’s IP regulation actions affirm the existing void in combatting, for example, the pervasive nature of football match streaming piracy, as highlighted by the victory in French courts by Qatari broadcast company, beIN Sports and others adversely impacted by the illicit practice.  Some of that content was broadcast to Africa; a surprising amount of it involved African IP, albeit indirectly. Illegal piracy and the failure to enforce those rights takes zeros out of the paychecks of ’s biggest football stars. 

Too often African countries have favored weaker intellectual property enforcement on things like pharmaceuticals. Drugs like viagra which require a prescription in the U.S. can be found in knock-off form across the region. Recently, South Africa wanted even to suspend patents on Covid-19 vaccines, but that would be a mistake, flooding the market with counterfeit drugs, and pushing back the timetable for delivery of vaccines for the continent.

This attitude has been to the detriment of Africa's IPs, including many sports icons and superstars who surely recognize the important of protecting their intellectual property. This will be an increasing and reasonable demand they will make of countries as a prerequisite to choosing where to come for a tournament, match or exhibition. Realizing the importance of IP in protecting the integrity of athletes’ brands, while also achieving the country's ambitions, stimulating business growth and economic competitiveness, the Saudi government established the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP) in 2018, to be the KSA’s competent authority for intellectual property.

Since its accession to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 1982, Saudi Arabia has attached increasing importance to intellectual property and has actively worked to achieve WIPO’s mission to promote innovation and creativity for the economic, social and cultural development of all countries. The Kingdom’s commitment to these objectives was on display last year when the Saudi Intellectual Property and the G20 Saudi Secretariat organized the IP20+ Global Intellectual Property Challenges Forum as part of the International Conferences Program, convening the heads of the heads of IP offices in G20 countries. Key action items included establishing priorities in response to global pandemics and emergencies, such as harmonizing IP operation measures, sharing IP policies and disseminating IP knowledge.

The 2020 Saudi convening was a critical engagement given that the G20 countries represent around 80% of the world’s economic output, two-thirds of global population and three-quarters of international trade, and around 96% of all patent filings, 91% of all trademark filings, 94% of worldwide design filings, and 73% of creative goods exports were from G20 countries. The KSA has invited the IP officials from the US and UK for an inspection tour of the Kingdom’s facilities in this effort.

Its recognition of intellectual property as a central issue for the new economy in the 21st century, and its current management of the challenges that come with IP, offers a clear, coherent template for African nations. As IP constitutes the new portal for a myriad engagements in the global economy, African countries can benefit from the Saudi model, giving them a gateway to the globalized new world and to the post-covid times that will require ingenuity and creativity, but also protection of IP for the needed and urgent development of African continent.   

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