Gwer v. KEMRI Case: Researchers Awarded 30 Million Shillings for Infringement of Intellectual Property Rights
In the recent case of Dr. Samson Gwer & 5 others v. Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) & 2 others Petition No. 21 of 2013, the Industrial Court at Nairobi found that KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KWTRP) had violated the constitutional rights to intellectual property of six Kenyan research doctors and ordered KEMRI to pay each of the doctors a sum of 5 million shillings as compensation. A copy of the court’s judgment is available here.
After an in-depth review of this case from an intellectual property (IP) perspective, this blogger concludes that this case sets an important precedent for the State’s obligations to protect the right to property under Article 40 of the Constitution of Kenya.
The researchers alleged that the respondents “routinely violated the Petitioners’ right under Article 40(1) of the Constitution by taking away the Petitioners’ right to intellectual property resulting in the Respondents, its servants, employees and students taking credit for the work and scientific innovation of the Petitioners by:
(i) (a) disregard syndrome; (b) Mathew Effect (Discovery credit inadvertently reassigned from the original discoverer for a better known researcher)
(ii) disapproval by the Respondent of the Petitioners and other local scientists innovations or work to apply for grants;
(iii) misappropriation of the work of local scientists to benefit expatriate scientists
(iv) frequent unfair administrative action
(v) Inability to veto adverse decisions by the scientific team leader
(vi) redeployment and chastisement through mail from the Director of KEMRI on the account of raising these grievances.
As a result the Petitioners submitted that the cumulative effect was to forever stifle the progress by Kenyan researchers and to impede their autonomy and dream of Kenyanising scientific innovations.
Therefore the petitioners sought the following reliefs, inter alia, a declaration that the Respondent’s conduct, acts and/or omissions are unlawful, illegal and/or unfair and the same violates Article 40 of the Constitution as well as an order that the Petitioners are entitled to compensation for the above alleged violation of the Constitution.
With regard to allegation (i) on the ‘disregard syndrome’, the petitioners submitted that the most rampant scientific misconduct by the Respondents against the Petitioners was plagiarism, a behaviour the latter termed as ‘citation amnesia’, ‘disregard syndrome’ and ‘bibliographic negligence’ on the part of the Respondents.
In this connection, the Petitioners alleged that the Respondents “arm-twisted the Petitioners to give up their intellectual property rights and cede their passwords to research and innovation” and that “the contracts of employment do not entitle KEMRI to the intellectual property of the Petitioners and the appropriation outlined is unlawful.”
The Respondents flatly denied these allegations arguing that there was not an iota of evidence before the court to substantiate the petitioners’ claims.
In its determination, the learned court noted that whereas KEMRI as an employer is a public institution, the funding under the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme emaned from external donors. These external donors attached specific terms and conditions to the grant and administration of the Wellcome Trust Research Programme which terms and conditions became subject of grievances by the Petitioners. However the Court found in favour of the Petitioners and stated thus at paragraph 82:
“The 1st Respondent as a state employer is bound by the Constitution to protect the right of the Petitioner and not allow a policy that appropriates their intellectual property as has been ably demonstrated by the Petitioners herein contrary to Article 40(1) of the Constitution.”
Therefore the court ordered that each of the Petitioners is entitled to compensation for the said constitutional violation in the sum of KES 5 Million within thirty days of the judgment date, including interest at Court rates from the judgment date to payment in full. Further the court ordered that the Petitioners are entitled to access all the outcomes of their scientific research and to the credit and benefit attached to the outcomes under Articles 35 and 40 of the Constitution. KEMRI was also ordered to pay the costs of the Petition.
From the above, it is submitted that the petitioner’s case for scientific misconduct and denial of intellectual property (IP) rights by KEMRI raises a number of important issues. Furthermore, the learned court’s determination that the petitioner had ably made a case for infringement of the constitutional right to property under Article 40 is quite significant as it reinforces a dangerous precedent set by the Court of Appeal on constitutional enforcement of IP rights.
To begin, the petitioners’ case is problematic as it does not disclose which specific intellectual property rights have been infringed by KEMRI. This case is further complicated by the petitioners’ conflation of plagiarism and alleged IP infringement. As previously discussed by this blogger here and here, copyright infringement may also amount to plagiarism but plagiarism can never amount to copyright infringement. However the petitioners appear to have successfully misled the court to make a finding that KEMRI’s scientific misconduct of plagiarism amounts to infringement of the petitioners’ intellectual property rights as enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
This leads us to consider the impact of the court’s IP-related findings in this case. The present judgment in the Gwer v KEMRI case appears to be in line with the recent Court of Appeal decision in the digital migration case where the majority of the appellate judges found that the alleged infringement of intellectual property rights could be the subject of a constitutional Petition. However as this blogger has argued here, the reasoning by the Court of Appeal on IP (and seemingly adopted in the Gwer case) was flawed.
Therefore on this issue of constitutional enforcement of IP rights, this blogger respectfully submits that the earlier decisions by the learned Majanja J. in the High Court cases of Sanitam Services (EA) Ltd v Tamia Ltd Petition No. 305 of 2012 and Royal Media Services Ltd & 2 others v Attorney General & 8 others  appear to be more cogent and correct in law compared with the findings in the present judgment and that of Court of Appeal in the digital migration case.
As a parting shot, this blogger notes that one unintended consequence of this emerging jurisprudence of constitutional enforcement of IP rights particularly in the employment context is that ex-employees such as Samson Ngengi (See our analysis of Ngengi v. KRA here) have an added avenue to obtain damages and compensation from public sector ex-employers in IP-related disputes. This blogger is informed that arbitration proceedings in the Ngengi’s case are still on-going.