Pretoria Not in Tune over Protection for Ideas Intellectual Property

Cape Times (South Africa), December 3, 2013 | Go to article overview

Pretoria Not in Tune over Protection for Ideas Intellectual Property


BYLINE: Jasson Urbach

At a conference on intellectual property in Durban last week, Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom noted in his keynote address: "Intellectual property can be an effective lever for development, particularly for a country like ours, with the commitment we have made to migrate from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based one."

There can be no doubt that South Africa's strong intellectual property stance has helped the country develop the most advanced economy in sub-Saharan Africa. But the government is far from aligned on the value of strong intellectual property protections.

The Department of Trade and Industry continues to push national policy reforms that undermine established intellectual property protections, creating uncertainty for aspiring hi-tech sectors and investors.

In September, the Department of Trade and Industry released a draft policy on intellectual property - a confusing hodgepodge of proposals that would expand the government's power to arbitrarily break patents and ignore other forms of intellectual property protections.

The draft policy gives the government the power to issue "compulsory licences" for pharmaceuticals, a practice that allows competitors to produce patented medicines at a fraction of the cost. This provision is already covered in the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act. The government has yet to exercise this authority, not because the process is too complicated - as the draft policy implies - but because the decision would put investments at risk and should not be taken lightly.

Hanekom's message was very simple. Any industry that derives value from ideas must make substantial and sustained investments to produce a marketable product, and that product must be protected by robust intellectual property laws to recoup the cost of those investments. Without such protections, the threat that such ideas can be taken and reproduced by almost anyone keeps any significant investments from being made.

Public funds

This was the logic behind the creation of the Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Funded Research and Development Act in 2010, which is the government's law to protect taxpayers' investments in government institutions - and to which the new draft policy on intellectual property makes no reference whatsoever.

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Pretoria Not in Tune over Protection for Ideas Intellectual Property
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