IP Bill locks down innovation

Johannesburg, 15 Jan 2009

President Kgalema Motlanthe has signed the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) from Publicly Funded Research and Development Bill into action.

The legislation forms part of science and technology minister Mosibudi Mangena's initiatives to increase innovation in the public sphere. The minister hopes to do this by ensuring publicly-funded researchers get a return on their research through marketable patents and collectable royalties.

Nhlanhla Nyide, chief communications officer for the DST, says the law provides an enabling environment for intellectual property creation, protection, management and commercialisation.

CSIR support

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) says it supports the objectives of the IPR Act and, at the same time, it points out the complexities of promoting effective technology transfer.

“We hope that implementation of the legislation will see the right balance struck between stimulating the desired behaviour, while avoiding over-regulation,” says CSIR senior intellectual property manager Rosemary Wolson.

The CSIR explains that technology transfer is just one way of strengthening linkages in the National System of Innovation, the network of players in a country interacting to constitute the country's innovation system.

It believes the impact of this legislation will be maximised if other elements of the system are simultaneously addressed, in conjunction with partners in the public and private sectors, academia and civil society.

Unintended consequences

According to the Bill, inventors working within the public sector are obliged to hand over new inventions to an incentive officer, such as a lecturer, who is obliged to patent the invention or hand it over to a government official who will then patent the invention.

“The impact of this law is that there is now a barrier to innovations which will save lives,” says Andrew Rens, intellectual property fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation. He notes that by moving away from the open sharing of inventions and information, more people stand to lose out than gain from the system.

Rens notes the Bill works on false premise that patenting leads to profit, and cases in other countries working on a similar system of IP rights have shown this. “SA also has no patent examination system where previous patents are checked against each other. There is no assessment which is done to see whether the idea has any merit or not,” explains Rens.

The Bill will have wide-ranging consequences for the South African research community, he notes, saying the country could see a decline in research co-operation from international consortia with universities, a decline in philanthropic funding and a move away from open access.

“This is not a solution. Do we want to see research which benefits the ordinary South African, or do we want to contribute to jobless growth? The solutions are in open access and increased access to venture capital funding for companies,” states Rens.

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