South Africa is faced with the thorny problem that it harbours a
First World/Third World dichotomy within its borders. Pioneering
steps are therefore required to protect public health, attract
foreign direct investment, encourage domestic innovation and
education which in turn boosts national economic growth, and filter
the benefits to all levels of South African society.
Professor Anastassios Pouris of the Institute for Technological
Innovation, University of Pretoria, speaking at the
"Accelerating IP and Innovation" Conference held in
September in Cape Town, South Africa, aired the view that the
non-examining patents system in operation in South Africa is
detrimental to the innovation in the country and consequently to
economic growth. Pouris urged government to bring the system up to
international standards (examining system; openness etc) as a
matter of urgency. James Pooley, Deputy Director General for
Innovation and Technology of the World Intellectual Property
Organization (WIPO) concurring with Valentin Mir, Director of
International affairs for the European Patent Office, however,
cautioned that an examining system will be far too onerous for a
developing country, like South Africa. The country would typically
need about 200 examiners to deal with the projected 10 000 patent
filings per year. Considering that highly trained engineers and
scientist are recruited as examiners and that these people are
prevented from inventing themselves, an examining system would be
very costly in terms of human resources. It was suggested that use
should rather be made of existing examining authorities to screen
patents and that the problem should be addressed in a regional
rather than a national forum which allows pooling of resources.
While it is clear that South Africa's patent system has many
shortfalls, it remains dubious whether revamping South Africa's
patent system to provide for at least some screening of patents,
and empowering the Registrar to ensure compliance with the Patents
Act, is the answer to the country's innovation and economic
woes. As pointed out by Dr Litvack, former Co-Director, The
Interventional Cardiology Center, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Los
Angeles; Professor of Cardiology at UCLA School of Medicine, there
are broader issues at hand which need to be addressed first.
Dr Litvack believes that strong academic institutions, fostering
a culture of developing IP on a world-wide basis and a "can
do" attitude and a supportive government are key factors for
innovation and economic development. This view was supported by
Gordon Myers, Chief Counsel, International Finance Corporation,
World Bank, who emphasized that the most binding constraint on
improving innovation is the scarce supply of skills. Gordon added
that that the interpretation and implementation of new laws and
exchange control enforcement may also need to be addressed.
Although it may be desirable to have an optimal functioning
patent system, in view of the broader challenges facing South
Africa, perhaps now is not the time to debate patent regime
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