IP can be immensely valuable to its owners and the economy at large if well protected and harnessed.
By COSMAS MOTANGI
Early 2015, Weetabix Limited published a notice in the media telling all dealers to sell their stocks of Multibix biscuits by May 30, 2015 or risk being jailed.
“This is to notify all members of the public that by a settlement between Weetabix Limited and Manji Food Industries Limited, it has been agreed that any person found stocking or promoting the biscuit product Multibix shall be liable for contempt of court,” the notice read in part.
Most newspaper readers may have seen the notice and ignored or dismissed it, seen it and not understood its importance or not seen it at all.
Yet, the simple notice was conveying a major business decision. Weetabix Limited, the United Kingdom-based cereals maker, had just reached an out of court settlement over a trade name dispute with Manji Food, a Kenyan company renowned for, among others, its Manji biscuits.
Use of ‘bix’
Under the settlement, Manji Foods was required to sell all its Multibix products by the end of May and settle legal fees incurred by Weetabix.
Weetabix had sued Manji for the use of ‘bix’ suffix in its multibix product which was launched in 2010. Weetabix said ‘weetabix’ and ‘bix’ is its exclusive right and property.
Mr Justice Eric Ogola had ruled that Manji had infringed on Weetabix trade mark and ordered the company to, among other things, recall all its multibix biscuits from supermarket shelves.
Similarly, Kenafric Industries Limited, a Kenyan manufacturer of confectionery, food, footwear and stationery products, stopped using the BEN10 character on its products after reaching an agreement with the trade mark owner, the New York Stock Exchange-listed Time Warner.
Across the world, multibillion court battles pitting Apple Inc. against Samsung Electronics Company Limited and Google versus Microsoft have been witnessed.
Intellectual property (IP)
Welcome to the world of intellectual property (IP), which according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs and symbols, names and images used in commerce.
WIPO, a United Nations agency, says IP is protected in law by, for example, patents, copyright and trade marks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefits from what they invent or create.
“By striking the right balance between the interests of innovators and the wider public interest, the IP system aims to foster an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish,” WIPO says.
Regardless of what product your enterprise makes or what service it provides, WIPO says, it is likely that it is regularly using and creating a great deal of IP. “This being the case, you should systematically consider the steps required for protecting, managing and enforcing it, so as to get the best possible commercial results from its ownership,” the UN agency advises.
Similarly, WIPO adds, if you are using IP that belongs to others, then you should consider buying it or acquiring the rights to use it by taking a license to avoid a dispute and consequent expensive litigation. This is why Weetabix Limited and other businesses have resorted to the courts to protect and enforce their IP rights.
Why protect your IP rights
Why is it necessary to protect your IP rights while respecting those of others? Mr Sylvance Sange, the acting Managing Director of the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI), a State agency under the Ministry of Industrialisation and Enterprise Development, says that just like any other form of property, IP can be immensely valuable to its owners and the economy at large if well protected and harnessed.
“Individual owners have the option of utilising the IP that they create themselves, licensing it out to others in exchange for royalties or selling (assigning) their rights to other entities for a fee,” he says.
An example of licensing an IP is a deal Propack Kenya, a local food processor, signed with Time Warner in 2015 to use the American media firm’s popular cartoons on the packaging of its snacks, including the BEN10 and Superman images that are hugely popular with children.
Under the deal, which came into effect in February 2015, Propack is free to use images of cartoon characters Tom & Jerry, Scooby Doo, Looney Tunes, Batman and Powerpuff Girls on its packaging in East Africa.
It also allowed the Kenyan firm to sub-licence the characters to any other consumer goods manufacturer. “Owners, therefore, need to determine for themselves the appropriate strategy that they will adopt. In such instances, the monetary benefit derived will depend on the value attached to the intellectual property by the market,” says Sange.
Police the market
Sange says it is the duty of the IP owner to police the market and take necessary action to enforce their rights through the courts or other bodies such as the Industrial Property Tribunal (for patents, industrial designs and utility model rights), the Anti-Counterfeit Agency (ACA) and the department of weights and measures for false trade description.