Wednesday, 28 March 2012

UK v USA: who is better at IP Technical Assistance?

Kingsley Egbuonu is well known in these parts as the author of the marathon A to Z series of visits to official national IP websites around the Continent, but he is a man of many parts. Here's a thoughtful and provocative piece from him which this blog is delighted to host:
"The UK v USA: who is better at IP Technical Assistance (TA) to African countries?

Promoting and improving IP regimes globally – especially in the developing world -- is often seen as exclusive to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In the African continent, the role of ARIPO and OAPI should not be underestimated or neglected. Nevertheless, do individual countries in the developed world have a complementary role to play in helping to establish a sound-- as well as beneficial -- IP regime in Africa? If so, should this be an active or a passive role?

This curiosity arose from the IPKat's piece (herethat the UK House of Commons' All-Party Intellectual Property Group (UKAPIPG) has announced an inquiry into the role of Government in protecting and promoting intellectual property at home and abroad. One of the questions (Number 5) posed by this inquiry is as follows: “….how should the UK government coordinate its policy at an international level and what should it do to promote IP abroad to encourage economic growth? Do you have examples of good and poor practice in this area?”

Well, the UKAPIPG might consider emulating the Commercial Law Department Programme (CLDP), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce that helps achieve U.S. foreign policy goals in developing and post-conflict countries through commercial legal reforms. The CLDP has six areas of expertise, one of which is IP. Based on the information on its website, CLDP’s main TA in Sub-Saharan Africa is in IP system development.

Commercial and legal connections and most recent UK effort

Afro-IP discovered last year that over half of the Community trade marks owned by companies based in Africa were filed on their behalf by IP firms here in the UK.

With the historical and present connections between Europe and Africa, it is not difficult to also find countries in both continents sharing similar legal or judicial systems (and Afro-IP can think of at least two African countries whose current IP legislation still mirrors - or until recently, used to mirror-- repealed IP legislation in the UK, in particular, the Trade Marks Act 1938). Surely this compatibility should make it easier for the UK to be at the forefront of IP technical assistance to these countries –- most of which are part of the Commonwealth.

But to be fair, the UK may well have a claim that as an EU member state, it already contributes to various TA programmes with IP/commercial law content to African countries (here and here). Perhaps most of the UK’s individual efforts go unnoticed; even so, Afro-IP reported this initiative -- albeit with questions.

Opportunity beckons

Afro-IP’s current country-by-country tour in search of official websites for IP offices in Africa has so far highlighted a desperate need for ICT improvement. Perhaps, this is where the UK government should start with as the evidence is abundantly clear. It may well be that lack of funds is not at issue for some of these countries and all that may be required from the UK government is a gentle diplomatic nudge to the relevant government personnel -in some of the countries seen so far on the tour- saying: “this is 2012 and a website is long overdue.”

The UK is already losing out to others in emerging markets in Africa and should not be complacent or risk alienating itself further. As economies in Africa continue to grow the UK government need not be told that a reliable and conducive commercial environment – based on respect and protection of all forms of property-- is equally important for those high-end goods and services that it intends to export. However, to avoid hysteria, the caveat should be that any TA or IP promotion project by the UK should be approached with a “non-zero sum” mindset with a view of assisting African countries – including at international level- to effectively utilise IP and recognisable sui generis rights for their own development and to their comparative advantage.

Pardoning my digression, readers’ comments are welcomed to the following questions:

(a) Should developed countries be promoting IP abroad?
(b) For the sake of argument and politics, is it better for the BRICS to assist Africa in IP development?
(c) Do you think that African countries need TA in IP from developed countries?
(d) If so, how should the UK deliver this – through ARIPO, OAPI or on a country-by-country basis? and
(e) Which are the critical areas for TA?

For a study analysing the impact of the UK’s IP technical assistance see here 
For CLDP’s upcoming IP workshops in Africa see here, herehere, here and here.
For luxury brands targeting Africa see here
For the next consumer market see here 
There are well-respected and suitably qualified IP practitioners in Africa (see here) and a firm based in an African country made the shortlist for the Intellectual Property Magazine Awards 2011".
Do let us have your comments!

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