Kuria Ndung’u and his brother Kamau of Dynamic Data Systems are one of the more recent success stories that mobile developers can relate to.
The duo created M-ledger, a personal financial management app which keeps track of transactions made through M-Pesa. The application, which has since been acquired in part by telecom firm Safaricom, analyses M-Pesa transactions and displays them in various formats, including how much money was sent daily, monthly or even yearly.
The app can also tabulate a user’s transactions in a graph and inform you of the recipient of the money, including paybills and till numbers.
The sibling’s journey started at the November 2013 Safaricom Appwiz Challenge. Their partnership with the country’s leading mobile phone operator was not difficult since they had built rapport with the firm’s innovation department.
“At the time we had registered a trademark, but we really did not think much about protecting our intellectual property because they (Safaricom) had played a great role in facilitating our startup,” Mr Kuria told Digital Business on Monday.
Mobile application developers and innovators can only grow their startups to a certain extent because of the limited access to capital, he said, adding that young developers should not be afraid to partner with more established players in the market who have funds to grow their innovations.
Access to capital
“Mobile app developers need to build their products and services with a five-year exit plan in mind, all this while looking for different ways of monetising their intellectual property,” Mr Kuria said.
His younger brother agreed, saying that protecting intellectual property will help young startups maximise returns. Mr Timothy Mukoba, the head of software at Sytech Limited, said that securing intellectual property comes in handy when conflicts arise over similar products.
Such disagreements have in the past played out on the local and global arenas, especially between Samsung and Apple who have on several occasions accused each other of copying mobile phone designs.
“An innovator can have a general idea of what service they want to develop which may be similar to what other people have, but the algorithm that one uses to build it is particular,” said Mr Mukoba.
“The developer therefore has to differentiate their innovations from other products that may already be in the market,” he said.
Mr Mukoba told Digital Business that he and his colleagues had not taken protection of intellectual property seriously until a workmate stole their source code (computer instructions) and sold it. A similar incident, he said, befell a friend had fortunately acquired copyright for his innovation. The culprit had no option but to agree to pay a certain amount of money from proceeds arising from the product, Mr Mukoba said.
The two cases show the need for developers and innovators to protect their intellectual property through copyright, trademarks and patents.
Source codes and processes through which developers come up with products can be patented, while a copyright can be acquired to protect the actual software that has been developed.
Ms Hellen Koki, a deputy legal counsel with the Kenya Copyright Board (Kecobo), told Digital Business that individuals cannot register ideas as copyrights since people can have similar ideas.
They can, however, register audiovisual recordings, literary works, artistic impressions and software.
“Registering your software will only cost you Sh1,000 and you would just need to supply the board with copies of it and an explanation of how it works. We still do not have many young innovators coming up to protect their software and applications,” she said.
Ms Koki said that while proof of originality is required, developers can choose to keep one or two elements of their works as trade secrets.
Monetise their creations
“Copyright owners can monetise their intellectual property and benefit financially from the licensing model and service agreement.
“If there is a copyright infringement we can pursue it as a criminal case or a civil case, if the owner of the rights wants to claim damages from the infringement,” she said.
Kecobo also has a dispute resolution mechanism which brings parties together in a bid to enable them agree to certain terms.
Mr Sylance Sange, the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (Kipi) MD, said that developers also have a right to register their mobile applications and software as intellectual property since their functional aspects can be protected by patents.
Kipi registers all trademarks, patents and industrial properties in the country.
“Protection gives the owner rights to be associated with the innovation and enjoy the financial benefits that come out of it. You can also make money by selling off or leasing the patent rights for a short time while having a trademark will enable people to associate a particular logo with your business,” he said.