Quite often, people cry foul when they find their inventions being used by other people without their permission or knowledge. Seeking recourse has often proved a futile exercise as legal costs could be prohibitive while some people simply don’t what to do if they find their ideas “stolen”. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) Executive Manager: Strategic Division Lungile Dukwana during the media launch of the World Intellectual Property Day in Bloemfontein about the importance of patenting one’s work and the downside of not doing so. Makoni also asked Dukwana about the best ways of protecting one’s work and how to go about it. Excerpts:
How would you define a patent and how important is it?
A patent is a form of intellectual property which gives its owner the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, and importing an invention for a limited period of time. You can talk about a lot things, whether you want to register a certain type of medicine and form a patent around that. That would assist you in deriving the value of Intellectual Property (IP) to the patent. So, everybody who is interested in that will have to talk to you as the owner or the developer, that’s one of the aspects of IP. Secondly, we have what we call a design. This is another form of IP that that we deal with at the CIPC which you can also register. There is also copyright. Music, for example, is one form of copyright. We normally take it for granted. We don’t register it at the CIPC but it is automatically protected when you publish that music. So, it’s one of the most important aspects that we must look at. A trademark is also another form of IP. The reason why we call a product Nike or Coca Cola is because it has a certain unique identity, different from others. That also gives it a certain value. So, you cannot just use it as and when you want.
How important is it for one to understand those aspects and protect their work?
I think that it’s important to understand those points I mentioned because if you don’t, you will not know when to derive the value that comes with ownership. In fact, the question of IP is so important that in some of the countries, when you have an IP that you have registered, you can actually use that as collateral. You can go to the bank and say I own this IP, can I be given a mortgage or loan of this amount… because I own this IP. That is when you would have reached a stage where you understand and appreciate the value of IP and its role in the development of any nation.
So, how easy is it to protect a patent in terms of cost and the rest of the work involved?
It is very expensive to protect an IP. In fact, it is one of the issues that has been raised several times before. If you have to do a patent, there is a lot of money you have to pay to protect it. And sometimes you work through a lawyer to do that. But CIPC has been working on some of those things to make sure that we are able to develop programmes that are going to assist people with the registration of intellectual property. For example, there is one called the Inventors Assistance Programme that CIPC has developed in order to assist upcoming investors and all those people who want to enter that space but may not have adequate resources.
Obtaining IP protection is one thing and commercialising it is another because not all inventors can be good businesspeople, what sort of support can they get?
I think that’s one area we are not doing very well as a country. As you may have heard, the speed gun/tracker used at the start of a race, was invented by a South African, but the question is how much did the country benefit from it? There are many inventions done by South African institutions and funded by government. But in most cases, when the research is done, the product is packed away and some intelligent person from the US, Australia or elsewhere, may find potential in that and take the very same research we have done here, overseas and develop a product. Another example is the Kreepy Krauly used to clean swimming pools, is one such product. It was developed in South Africa but when these products were supposed to be commercialised and put in production, things did not happen the right way. This means we are not putting IP where it’s supposed to be. So, we need collaborations to help us ensure that we put IP where it’s supposed to be in the economy of the country.
Are there any significant gains for the country from IP if things were to be done differently?
Indeed, it can do much in dealing with our economic challenges when we manage the issue of IP better. In fact, South Africa invests a lot of money in IP. We do a lot of research. A lot of money is given to research institutions in the country. I think we invest about three percent of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in research. But the output of that is not necessarily used in South Africa, or does not give us the kind of results that we need. If we can start focusing there, we can have a better output in terms of IP success.
The theme for the World Intellectual Property Day is “Reach for Gold in Sport” why was this found to be important?
There are so many things happening in sport but at times not much benefit is derived from the activities involved. For example, there is gym equipment that needs to be upgraded all the time in line with the needs of the people using it. That’s an area that needs to be covered by IP. There are sportspeople who develop soccer boots, others develop underwear branded in their names and some have perfumes named after them. What this tells you is that when you are a sportsperson, you are not just a sportsperson because you are playing soccer, or any other sport. You begin to be a brand in your own right.
How important is this to sportspeople? Is this something different sportspeople can do and what does it take to really make some headway in that?
When you begin to be a brand on your own, you are able to develop products that can be identified with you and give a certain value or capital because they identify with you and the successful person that you are. Though we have not reached that stage in our own country, it is something that we can do. In fact, if there is something that we need to do, we need to make that the sports personalities in the country, are actually trained so they are able to develop their own brands and realise the full potential of their brands. This is because they become brands on their own. So, I think it’s very important that we look at the issue in that manner.
And how exactly do you ensure that, when one makes claims that they have invented something, they are making genuine claims and that research in similar fields are not compromised?
If you come with a certain product claiming it’s a patent that you have developed, and you want it registered, what most countries are now doing is that they would first establish that you actually developed the product and that you are not making false claims. This is to ensure that you don’t close the space for others. In South Africa, the CIPC is currently working on the establishment of a search and examination capacity unit within the organisation. What this will do is, you will be able to narrow the space in terms of what you will be working on rather than crows the space with claims you cannot develop. We believe once we do that, it will improve the quality of South African patents and eventually, the products produced.