Most Read Contributor in South Africa, September 2016
Previously published in the Legal Times
The thought of Africa may conjure up images of disease, poverty,
wars, famine and downwardly progressing economies. Indeed, Africa
is sometimes regarded as a dark continent, attracting only those in
search of precious metals and hidden gems.
It is no wonder then that outsiders at times find it difficult
to make a positive association between this image of Africa and the
progressive intellectual-property rights system present on the
continent. With the supposed lack of infrastructure and market
awareness in Africa, there is often a perception that Africa has no
role to play in the global economy and there is, therefore, no
incentive for companies and multinational organisations to enter
the African marketplace to begin with.
However, this could not be further from the truth. What
outsiders often miss is that sub-Saharan Africa is widely
considered to be the world's second-fastest-growing region
after Asia, with a GDP forecast of 5.8% for 2012, and a foreign
direct investment which has increased from $9 billion in 2000 to
$88 billion in 2008. In fact, the economies of Africa enjoy a GDP
which increases year-on-year, and there is a burgeoning middle
class together with a rapidly growing technology and
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out
that most African countries have very small intellectual-property
professions, which means that there is little or no economic
incentive for any publisher to assume the financial burden of
launching and selling specialist law journals, law reports and
practitioners' reference works for most of these countries. For
the outsider, this generally means that information relating to the
filing of a patent, an opposition to a trade mark or a defence to
an action for copyright infringement is not easy to come by.
A second problem often faced by practitioners trying to navigate
the world of intellectual-property protection in Africa is that
there is often great difficulty communicating both within Africa
and between Africans and the outside world.
Indeed, levels of telecommunication penetration and,
particularly, the lack of broadband internet access have placed
greater importance on slower and less reliable communications media
such as fax and the regular postal service. This means that
information which, in many developed countries, one simply gathers
from an official website is far more difficult to access in
As such, the apprehension regarding obtaining IP protection in
Africa may stem more from the IP practitioners tasked with handling
matters in Africa than from the companies themselves. This lack of
information often results in a situation where time-consuming
effort needs to be put into the completion of the simplest of
tasks, with frustrating and undue delays often being the
And so, South Africa is rising to face the African challenge.
Many South African law firms are strategically positioning
themselves as key role-players on the continent, with an impressive
and growing presence in Africa. These law firms are providing an
African solution to an African problem, by fostering strong
relationships with key personnel at each of the African
intellectual- property institutions, as well as with local law
firms in each of the African countries.
In addition, they have built up expert knowledge on the inner
workings of the local and regional intellectual-property systems in
Africa. This enables them to obtain information on
intellectual-property matters with minimum effort and no undue
From an intellectual-property perspective, clients seeking to do
business on the African continent can rely on their trusted
advisor, in the form of a leading South African legal firm, having
an indepth knowledge and understanding of the laws, practices,
customs and procedures in each African region, as opposed to having
to seek and develop a new advisory relationship in each
In conclusion, it should be borne in mind that Africa is
expected to continue enjoying substantial economic growth and
increased economic activity, and, as such, obtaining
intellectual-property protection and maintaining and enforcing
these rights should be at the top of any checklist of a company
seeking to obtain a dominant position in today's global
economy. This is where South African law firms have a key role to
play and are coming into their own quite remarkably.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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