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m:lab By John Kieti / February 1, 2013

Working With Intellectual Property Rights In East Africa

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One challenge that mobile startups have continued to face recently in East Africa lies in the question of whether to spend time, money and other resources in Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) protection. Startups are often convinced that their ideas and innovations are unique and that they only should rightly pursue monetization for the ideas and innovations.

The entrepreneurs are often seen to go to great lengths to keep their ideas secret or at least protected from disclosure to “idea thieves”. Prioritising execution of the idea versus securing Intellectual Property (IP) rights for the same becomes a dilemma for many.

More often than not, it turns out that many other people within the target legal jurisdiction or somewhere else in the world have had the same idea. Sometime startups discover that someone else even went ahead to execute the idea. Worse still the same idea or innovation may already be protected through patents or other types of IP assets and the startup’s further execution of the idea potentially infringes on the other peoples formerly secured IP rights.

Having to participate in competitions such as Pivot East with products of such ideas becomes a further challenge of protection and disclosure to startups. Then there is the argument of whether or not ideas by themselves are protectable. Some lawyers even go further to argue that most East African IP regimes are such that it is not possible to patent or otherwise protect software beyond default copyright rules. With such dismissive arguments, startups often perceive local lawyers as too simplistic and discouraging to their IP protection ambitions. General professional suspicion and perceived costs of legal services do not help either to support startups ambitions of participating in the global IP rights value chain.

Going back to global technology trends, it has become apparent that accumulating an arsenal of patents and other IP assets is an important strategy for global IT players to secure future revenue streams. The question for local entrepreneurs and innovators therefore becomes: if Google, Samsung, Apple and others are aggressively securing IP rights then what can we do to be part of that ostensibly lucrative global IP rights value chain?

It is common expectation that with East Africa leading in various aspects of mobile innovations, regional innovators are dealing at the cutting edge of related technologies. Mobile money is definitely one of the aspects where the region is leading. It should therefore not surprise many to see local innovators lodge successful claims to IP rights for innovations that are globally unique and patentable.

Given these questions and challenges, Pivot East 2013 organisers will hold a workshop for entrepreneurs and IP practitioners to network and exchange views on how to navigate IP rights issues for competitive advantage. An emerging trend where professionals other than lawyers are offering IP support to entrepreneurs as IP practitioners will be explored. The workshop will be on Tuesday 5th February 2013, 3pm – 5pm and will be hosted at iHub – Nairobi. Entrepreneurs, lawyers, business advisors and IP practitioners are invited to contribute to the discussion and to network.

A keynote presentation on global trends in IP practice will be made by Dr. Derek Palmer, the Managing Director of ProspectIP, an Intellectual Property Management company based in the UK. Derek Palmer is also  investor and non-executive director of a number of technology companies. The workshop will also see officials from KIPI share an update on patents and other IP rights secured in Kenya. Representatives from local mobile startups will also share their experiences with IP protection.

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Author : John Kieti

John Kieti is the Lead at m:lab East Africa. He is an exponent for mobile entrepreneurship and an experienced m4d professional. John is passionate about the growth of East Africa's knowledge economy. He holds an MBA and BSc in Computer Science. He also occasionally shares his thoughts about East Africa's knowledge economy on his blog - gmeltdown.com


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