Asking the Right Questions: Comment on Kenyan Message to WIPO Inventors Assistance Program by IP Watch

In a recent article by IP Watch titled: “Message To WIPO: Here’s The Assistance We African Inventors Really Need”, a selection of local inventors in Kenya are interviewed on the topic of the recently launched Inventors Assistance Program (IAP) by World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). On the whole, it is clear from the article that the call for WIPO and KIPI to do more for poor inventors and small businesses is grounded on fundamental gaps in the understanding of the intellectual property (IP) system and the roles played by the administrators of the patent system internationally and domestically. As a result, crucial questions such as the capacities of patent offices like KIPI to substantively examine any IAP-related increases in patent applications as well as the collation of all patent information for public and inventor follow-on use have not been addressed by the article.

According to the article, the responses from the interviewees is a collection of ideas on how to expand the programme to make it more effective on the ground. One of the key issues raised in the article is that Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI), the nation’s patent office is not fit for purpose since local inventors cannot “trust” KIPI to protect their innovations rather they are afraid that KIPI will “expose their innovations to unscrupulous competitors”. Therefore, according to those interviewed for the article, IAP should focus on “strengthening the capacity of intellectual property protection institutions” such as KIPI so as to “enable them undertake their work effectively”. The interviewees in the article also argue that the role of WIPO and by extension KIPI “should not be restricted to provision of free legal assistance for patent acquisition” and should include functions like financial and technical support, assistance, grants for patent applicants.
These responses by the interviewees in this article all beg the same question: Do these inventors really understand IP or the IP system or how the system works? Do they understand what the mandates of WIPO are? Do they know what the functions of a patent office like KIPI are? Clearly, the answer is no.
Thus, in a sense, the article is frustrating to read since all it does is paint a picture of a pre-existing problem which is not the focus of the IAP, namely low levels of awareness about IP in most developing countries. As a result, the article would be unlikely to assist anyone like WIPO, KIPI or others seeking to increase the accessibility and use of the patent system for the perceived good of the inventors on the ground.
However, in another sense, the article seems to elicit questions related to our on-going research as part of the Open AIR Partnership. Viewed in this context, one may ask: to what extent will the open access to knowledge on patents facilitated by the IAP result in either African inventors opting into the system or opting out of the patent system? In both opt-in and opt-out cases, what would be the role of open collaborative innovation in the sustainability and scaling up of the knowledge-based businesses of these inventors? and what type of knowledge governance system would best ensure that the social and economic benefits of such innovation are shared inclusively?

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