Awareness of the value of intellectual property (IP) is growing steadily in South Africa, as significantly more companies are becoming aware of the opportunities it can offer, not only locally but also internationally, says South African Institute for Intellectual Property Law (SAIIPL) president Tshepo Shabangu.
“Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are beginning to realise the value of IP as they start innovating,” she says, adding that new SMEs want to protect the IP of their innovations as the companies grow to understand and value what they can derive from registering their IP and exploiting it commercially.
“Building strong reliable brands will ensure consumer loyalty and increase the value of the brand, making it more attractive for commercialisation purposes. Big businesses and multinational companies already know their IP rights and how to enforce them. But the same is not applicable to SMEs, who need to start registering their trade marks as well as designs and patents, if they have any.”
Shabangu hopes that South African companies will start building more brands that can perform well on an international platform and says this is something most local com- panies are not doing aggressively enough. She notes, however, that companies such as MTN, Vodacom, Shoprite Checkers, Old Mutual, Standard Bank, Absa and Barcelos are pioneers of homegrown brands that have successfully crossed over to the international market.
“We are really living in exciting times,” she enthuses, noting that, second to Asia, Africa is the fastest-growing economy in the world.
An increasing number of local companies are approaching the members of the SAIIPL for assistance, says Shabangu, which is note- worthy because, in the past, IP was not taken seriously. Today, however, it has made its way to the boardroom and is one of the top priorities on executive agendas.
The Role of the Institute
IP is at the heart of all businesses, says Shabangu, which is why she believes IP lawyers play an integral role in assisting business owners with protecting and registering their IP.
The SAIIPL’s main goal is to qualify trademark and patent attorneys, which Shabangu believes the institute has done successfully since its inception in 1952. “Our lawyers are regarded as being among the best in the world, and can compete on a global platform,” she adds.
However, the SAIIPL faces the challenge of qualifying black lawyers as trademark and patent attorneys. Shabangu feels that, in a country like South Africa, it is important to consider those who were previously disadvantaged, who may not have had the opportunity to venture into alternative fields of law.
For that reason, the institute embarked on a two-year-long trademark learnership programme in 2010 with the Law Society of South Africa’s (LSSA’s) Legal Education and Development (LEAD) division. Sponsored by the Safety and Security Sector Education and Training Authority, the trademark learnership programme gave previously disadvantaged lawyers the opportunity to gain working knowledge of IP, so that they would be able to identify future clients’ IP-related issues.
Shabangu, on behalf of the SAIIPL, and members of the LSSA LEAD division, ultimately decided that 12 lawyers should take part in the programme, after each candidate had undergone a screening process to ensure they met the criteria. Each candidate was assigned a mentor to offer advice and guide them through the programme.
The learnership programme is, however, not running this year because of logistical issues experienced in the pilot programme. Shabangu cites a lack of commitment on the part of the mentees as one of the primary challenges that the programme faced. “Most mentees were sole practitioners and had no backup at their offices,” she says. Candidates had no colleagues to help carry their case loads while they attended institute lectures and shadowed their mentors.
Despite these obstacles, Shabangu is intent on running another learnership programme in the future.
She is also determined to use the institute as a platform to make people aware of what they can do with their legal and science qualifications. She says this challenge could be overcome by targeting learners at high school level and presenting them with an opportunity to choose IP as a career at an early stage.
The SAIIPL’s members already take advantage of university open days to educate students about the possibility of an IP career path. The institute also offers two bursaries every year for previously disadvantaged science students to further their studies towards an LLB degree after completing their science degree, so that they can eventually qualify as patent attorneys.
The SAIIPL’s lectures, hosted by the University of South Africa’s business school, in Pretoria, are conducted by practising attorneys who are members of the institute. The courses cover patent law, trademark law, design law, copyright law, and a comparative study of international trademark laws.
Once the students have completed all five courses, they then write the trademark practitioners exam or the patent attorneys exam, which is run by the Patent Examination Board.
The institute, with the help of some Cape Town-based members, is currently working to make the lectures accessible to members based in Cape Town and Durban through various forms of technology.
She hopes to resolve the difficulties surrounding accessibility by 2013.
Shabangu wants the SAIIPL to play a bigger role in the drafting of new IP legislation in South Africa. “In the past, we were involved in drafting IP legislation, and government departments and Parliament used to actively seek our advice. But our influence in the drafting of IP legislation has declined over the past few years,” she notes.
The institute was, however, invited to comment on the Traditional Knowledge Bill in Parliament last year, and was able to provide input even though not all its views were considered.