Many African countries are currently engaged in debate concerning Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) policies they need to have in place to enable innovation, technology transfer and easier access to knowledge and technology. No doubt, creators of knowledge need reward and a degree of protection for their works, which in turn encourages innovation. Some studies have shown that countries where policies strongly protect intellectual property are more likely to attract foreign investments – particularly from the US and the UK that are strong believers in tight IPR policies. In Africa, there are some who feel a regime of expanded property rights protection holds considerable promise for promoting long-term economic growth and technological innovation.
But in an era of globalisation and rapid technological developments, there are concerns that tight IPR regimes could create “monopolies on information”. In fact, the terms intellectual protectionism and intellectual poverty are increasingly being used to refer to tight intellectual property policies and their likely effects.
The ‘Communications Rights in the Information Society’ (CRIS) programme, a campaign that seeks to ensure that communication rights are central to the information society, argues that IPR has affected the public’s access to knowledge in the public domain and to copyrighted works, limited legitimate opportunities for cultural appropriations, stifled learning, creativity and innovation, thus placing curbs on the democratisation of knowledge. It also contends that IPR has infiltrated into the domain of food and medicine, threatening the sustainability of indigenous knowledge and biodiversity.
For Africa, which is in dire need of affordable technology and knowledge, tight IPR controls could then be seen as a loser. But, separately, Africa also needs to take seriously the issue of protection of traditional knowledge and folklore, since those with access to technology and who are knowledgeable about IPR can easily turn what is community knowledge into their patented ‘for sale’ product. In this debate traditional knowledge covers literary, artistic or scientific works, song, dance, medical treatments and agricultural techniques, while folklore covers the breadth of expressions of culture. But all these are impacted but new technologies, and it is imperative therefore to have policies that strike the right balance.