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How to secure your business idea from theft by big corporations

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Intellectual Property rights foster innovation and creativity among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). File | Fotosearch

We will start this story with a warning: please, please ensure the idea you want to make money from is patented and that its brand name is trademarked. Otherwise, you will end up in tears like one trader did. I will call him Norman.

Norman is different from your ordinary young man. He has an uncanny ability to see opportunities that profit-deaf folks like me will take years to see or never see at all. Take him to a new town; in a few hours, he will have worked out what line of business can do well there. Or he will single out a business that won’t last long. Strangely, his predictions almost always come to pass.

Thanks to that industrious mind, Normal struck gold a few years ago—or so he thought. He came up with a groundbreaking e-commerce platform.

Norman worked out that if there were an app to list all the genuine offers countrywide, he would earn from it in more ways than one. One way could be by selling advertisements. Another would be allowing online advertising agencies to place ads on his platform. He could also make money by collaborating with sellers to distribute discount vouchers.

He approached a reputable coder, and the app was up after days of back-breaking work. To his surprise, the app started bringing in money during the trial phase. He was amazed by how well it picked up and how quickly the traffic to the dedicated website grew.

He didn’t know that one of the companies he approached to sign up for the listing had more than a cursory interest in his platform.

Working furtively, the company created a copycat app plus website, added a few more functionalities because they had the financial muscle to do so, and upon realising that Norman had not trademarked its name, got a trademark using the same name Norman was using for the app, only changing one vowel.

It struck him with utter shock when, one day, he was served with a cease-and-desist order about using an already registered brand name and idea. Such orders mean what they say: that you should forthwith stop whatever has been found intrusive by a court.

The company moved like clockwork and took the app to the market before Norman could fully launch his. Needless to say, he would get questions like, “Isn’t this app already in the market? We are already using it.”

It would hurt him to no end, the realisation that his innovation had been grabbed from him and that he had no legal recourse. There was no way he could prove he was the idea's originator.

Norman is an island

He has since moved on to other ventures — thank heavens there is more where the app idea came from — but he is now wiser. Norman is an island no more, if you can see what I did there.

What if Norman knew about intellectual property rights (IPR) protection before going to the market with his app?

If you are in business here in Kenya, there are institutions you must be aware of. There is no excuse.

The first one is the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (Kipi). This is the government agency that coordinates the registration of trademarks and patents. You apply to them seeking ownership of an idea, pay the requisite fees, and they do their research to ensure it is unique and without a related idea owned by anyone else. Once they are satisfied, you get your patent or trademark.

Another agency you should know about is the Kenya Copyright Board. If you are an artist who creates unique content and hopes to get a living off it or a techie who writes code, you must copyright your creations to ensure no one replicates them without facing the consequences.

Kenya is a member state of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (Aripo) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo), making it easier to get a patent that applies to Africa and beyond.

Had Norman worked with those bodies and understood IP, this is how his story would have changed:

Securing his interests

IP rights foster innovation and creativity among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the region covered by Aripo. Had his budding business gotten the patents and trademarks in a timely fashion, Norman would have protected his territory. This would have easily seen his company grow as per his plans by giving him access to loans and financiers, among other forms of support.

Ensuring there are no quacks

Picture this: The United Nations says in sub-Saharan Africa, as many as 267,000 deaths per year are linked to falsified and substandard antimalarial medicines. Do you know why this is the case? It is because of unscrupulous players who sell imitations of known drugs. Norman’s app could have been cloned by a con who could have used it to swindle money from unsuspecting public members through phishing and such ploys. With a patent, you ensure an element of consumer protection.

Getting market recognition

When you have a registered trademark, you have all the cover you need when you start marketing your innovation. Had Norman trademarked his idea, he would not have suffered the embarrassment of being told to cease using a brand name belonging to another organisation, yet he was sure he was the one who came up with it.

Where he could have got the information

Are you in business and you want to know how to protect your ideas? You can get more material on various platforms.

1. Afripi

A great place to start is the Intellectual Property Rights and Innovation in Africa (Afripi). Afripi is an international cooperation project funded and directed by the European Union, co-funded and implemented by the European Union Intellectual Property Office (Euipo). The overall objective of Afripi is to facilitate intra-African trade and African and European investment. It aims to boost the continental economic integration through strengthening and improving the systems for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) creation, protection, utilisation, administration and enforcement. You can follow them on social media to stay updated. They are on Facebook, X, and LinkedIn.

2. Kipi 

Norman could have got local information about patents on the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (Kipi) website.

3. Aripo

 The African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (Aripo), a continental body that Kipi is affiliated to, could also have helped. It is an inter-governmental organisation that facilitates cooperation among Member States in intellectual property matters, intending to pool financial and human resources and seek technological advancement for economic, social, technological, scientific and industrial development. You can follow them on Facebook, X or LinkedIn.

By Elvis Ondieki - [email protected]