How intellectual property rights can boost innovation in Uganda?

Thursday November 14 2019



Justine Luwedde

Justine Luwedde 

By Justine Luwedde

The need to protect inventions and creative works of individuals has been acknowledged for a longtime. This is because the Intellectual Property (IP) is regarded as an important part of day-to-day business decisions. Almost on a daily basis, new products, brands and designs come onto the market as a result of constant creativity and innovation.
Take, for instance, the Coca Cola lawsuit against Harris International on charges of trademark infringement in 2013. The suit was seeking to stop Harris International from manufacturing products (Riham Cola), which are relatively similar, with intent to cause confusion with the Coca Cola brand in terms of colour, packaging, content and name. The parties, however, held negotiations and agreed to have the dispute settled following a mediation recommendation by the Commercial Court.

On the contrary, what would happen if the party in question did not have the capacity to go to court? It means that, if left unprotected, a good innovation or creation could be lost to bigger competitors who have the capacity to commercialise the product or service at a relatively competitive price, yet the original inventor or creator of the product, would not receive any monetary benefit or compensation.

IPRs can spur innovation and creativity by giving creators a chance to profit from their works, and in return, the creative work can be made available to the public so that others can make use of it.

IPRs facilitate the transfer of knowledge and at the moment many companies globally treat IP as central to their businesses and manage it strategically as a tool to increase firm productivity, market value, and securing returns on Research & Development (R&D) investment.

Patents (and copyrights), for example, allow employers to appreciate the fruits of creativity and skill of their prospective and current employees. So if rights are weak, then workers have trouble measuring their value.

In addition, patents are often used as security for bank loans by patent holders and as investment by financial institutions. In this case, IPRs would help reduce the credit deficit prevalent in Uganda, and probably reduce the overly high interest rate (Prime lending rates have averaged to 20 percent in 2019).

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Trademarks and industrial designs also enable consumers to identify products and services of specific firms, as well as distinguish particular products from similar products or services.

Moreover, the protection of IPRs may perhaps be important in protecting market share and revenues. Weak protection of patents, for example, makes it more costly to protect inventions, so firms often look internally to resolve problems, which could be fixed easily by way of inter-firm partnerships.

Notable also is the fact that IPRs require continuous monitoring, which is the obligation of the rights owner. For instance, there is need to monitor the market to identify any third party copying or imitating a product. This can be done at trade fairs, or enforced at the border points by the customs authorities to stop infringing goods from entering the local market.

The Global Innovation Index 2017, listed four of the innovation achievers of the year – Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Mozambique as outstanding performers in innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Kenya’s good performance was driven by increased investment in infrastructure while Rwanda and Mozambique invested in human capital and research. Similarly, Uganda has emphasised capacity-building for human resources, and strengthening research and development infrastructure.

This suggests that a country’s innovation strategies depend on the level of technology and economic development, nature of goods and services the country produces, plus the kind of innovations it creates. The sources of innovation can be external or internal to the economy or firm. These may include; activities which are science and technology-based such as R&D, human capital development (education & training), and external technology.

Despite Uganda’s milestone, however, there is still need to establish strong infrastructure (eg in education), enhancing skills and learning abilities, increasing capacity at the firm level to utilise the existing technologies in ways which are innovative, and strengthening the existing IP rules through protection and enforcement so as to support government efforts to increase local innovation.

Going forward, IPRs are mostly effective in the presence of skills, information, capital and markets. Uganda could adopt an IPRs regime which is strong enough to stimulate domestic innovations and also permit exploitation of foreign technology.

Thus, IP rules should be regulated to suit the level of development in Uganda, in order to support innovation and creativity, which is relevant to the social and economic needs of the country.

Ms Luwedde is a research analyst at Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC)

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