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Africa: IP in Africa: A little different

An article that recently appeared in the South African news publication Daily Maverick, Intellectual property for the 21st century economy, reminds us that, notwithstanding the increasing homogenisation of IP laws, parts of the developing world are yet to be totally convinced that IP is the best way of ensuring innovation and progress.

The article was written by renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz. He comes right to the point when he says this: 'Developing countries are increasingly pushing back against the intellectual property regime foisted on them by advanced economies over the last 30 years… they are right to do so because what matters is not only the production of knowledge, but also that it is used in ways that put the health and well-being of people ahead of corporate profits.'

According to Stiglitz, the pushback is being led by South Africa, India and Brazil, and the focus is medicines. Although South Africa has in the past felt the 'full legal might of the global pharmaceutical industry', it is in the process of finalising an IP policy that expands access to medicines. The South African government 'is right, and other developing and emerging economies should follow in its footsteps.'

Stiglitz is critical of IP: it was wrong to impose a 'one-size-fits-all' policy; the standards imposed by the developed world are not designed to maximise progress and innovation, but rather corporate profits; the institutions and laws protecting knowledge are increasingly inadequate to govern global economic activity, and poorly suited to the needs of developing countries; patents may encourage research, but the sheer number of patents now stifles innovation; much of the research that is taking place is aimed at extending protection rather than creating new products. The IP regime has, says Stiglitz, erected barriers to the use of knowledge, and this is not sustainable.

Stiglitz says that the 21st century economy will differ from that of the 20th century in two major ways – the economic weight of countries like South Africa, Brazil and India will increase, and the economy of ideas, knowledge and information will become increasingly important. Developing countries should be looking at alternatives to patents for financing research, including centralised bodies like national health institutes, tax credits and prizes.

IP owners in the developed world, as well as their advisors, would do well to bear these philosophical differences in mind

Wayne Meiring

Spoor & Fisher Jersey
Africa House, Castle Street
St Helier, Jersey JE4 9TW
Channel Islands
Tel: +44 1534 838000
Fax: +44 1534 838001



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