Intellectual Property Rights: the Key to Supporting Economic Growth? – A Different View

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As African nations transition from resource to innovation-led knowledge economies it is critically important to raise awareness of the positive impact of IP and in the long-run to establish robust and progressive legal frameworks. – Excerpt from an article by Selina Hinchliffe of Eversheds published on the Africa Law & Business website here

In the article above, the author makes the case for ‘strong’ intellectual property (IP) by arguing that IP rights are an absolute necessity for innovation and that the failure of tech innovators to protect IP would serve as an investment disincentive thereby affecting economic development. Not surprisingly, nothing is said about the fact that strong IP raises the cost of innovation and in most cases ends up being an impediment to free exchange of technology, culture and knowledge which are core tenets of innovation and creativity.

In truth, there is little empirical research examining IP and knowledge governance in Africa – a research and knowledge gap that the Open AIR Project, of which CIPIT is a part, has tackled with great success thus far. In the meantime, it appears that the lack of sufficient information on how IP interacts with innovation in Africa has led some like the author and others to call for strong IP  across the continent while disregarding and/or undervaluing the numerous examples of African innovation and creativity that already exist and thrive in the absence of IP.
The author also discusses the role of African-founded tech start-ups as an economic driving force. A relevant portion of the article reads as follows:

For tech start-ups it is their IP that is their most valuable asset. In the presence of strong and thorough legislation these assets can be properly protected, giving the start-up credibility and providing foreign investors with the attractive reassurances they need. The realisation of the importance of protecting IP to develop and foster sustainable knowledge economies founded on the benefits of science, innovation and technology is a relatively new one in Africa.

In the African context, the supposed positive correlation between IP protection and scalability of tech start-ups may not be as obvious or straight-forward as the author suggests. In fact, our on-going Open AIR research under the theme of high technology hubs examines the extent to which formal IP rights have been important to the success or failure of tech startups in Africa, starting right here in Kenya – the home of the ‘Silicon Savannah’. It is hoped that the outputs from our research will be of some use to the author and others seeking to understand the relationship between tech innovation and IP in the local African context.

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