Slaying the Intellectual Property dragon

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Small and medium sized businesses are at the forefront of churning out innovative and creative solutions to problems faced by ordinary people. However, if left unprotected these inventions and creations are at risk of being taken up by competitors who are in a better position to take that product or service to market before the original creator.  The subject of intellectual property, is at times shrouded with a lot of mystery, especially for people in the idea or startup industry. What is a patent, or copyright? What can be patented and how much is it? This information is not always readily available for us as innovators or if it is we do not know how to access it. We need to be able to consume and digest this information so we can make appropriate decisions for our startups.

Ntshintshi is an online transaction matching platform for people in different countries. The platform allows individuals or companies to send money or make payments in different countries. It allows users to select their ideal recipient based on closest amount match for the money they wish send.  Our start-up was founded by myself and Kevin Mpofu is currently based in Bulawayo. After discussions with Kevin as well as advice from mentors, we decided to do research around protecting our idea including the processes we are using to build a highly functioning platform. As the founder of a tech start-up it is of utmost importance to be literate in the Intellectual Property sphere and be immersed in knowledge around the subject.

I then took the time to travel to Harare, where the ARIPO* offices are located and found out more about the protection process. As a walk in, a consultant met with me for a brief meeting. I wanted to understand what protections were available, which of those were suitable for our idea and platform as well as how to go about applying for those protections. After a brief summary of what our platform does, the consultant explained that as our idea was not new within the market, it would be hard to prove using a Patent application, however, the process we used to build a functioning platform could be protected under the Utility Model. She explained that there is not much difference between the Patent and Utility Model protection.

A utility model is an exclusive right granted for an invention, which for a limited period of time allows the right holder to prevent others from commercially using the protected invention without the right holder’s authorization. In its basic definition, which may vary from one country (where such protection is available) to another, a utility model is similar to a patent. In fact, utility models are sometimes referred to as “petty patents” or “innovation patents.”

The main differences between utility models and patents are the following: The requirements for acquiring a utility model are less stringent than for patents. While the requirement of “novelty” is always to be met, that of “inventive step” or “non-obviousness” may be much lower or absent altogether. In practice, protection for utility models is often sought for innovations of a rather incremental character which may not meet the patentability criteria.

I had a number of questions around the Utility Model protections as well as the application process, these questions were sufficiently answered and in the end the consultant advised that we apply for the Utility Model protection as it is best suitable for our platform and financially manageable for a start-up. She provided me with a few resources to provide further clarity on the different protections as well as the forms needed to complete the application. There are two ways to file for Utility Model protection, physically or online through the ARIPO portal. The application fee is $100, however for online applications, this is discounted to $80. Applicants are required to complete Form 3, invention description, claims and abstract, including any illustrations to support the invention.

Recently, I have started the online filing process, which includes creating an ARIPO profile on their portal, filling out Form 3 as well as completing the invention description claims abstract and illustrations. This part of the process is arduous as a lot of thought needs to go into the invention’s description, detailed claims covering each function are required and concise illustrations to support the descriptions. I am currently still in the process of creating an ARIPO profile as I encountered challenges such the requirement of information not readily available such as an e-signature. In addition, the portal has to be manually approved, this process takes between 3-7 days. This is unfortunate because for any errors that occur, this process needs to be started over. I have re-submitted the profile request and awaiting approval response. Although all our documentation has been completed, the profile creation has hindered the filing process.

All in all, my experience with ARIPO has been an educational one and the organisation has provided many resources online and at their offices, to assist with understanding the need for intellectual protection. I would hope that they improve that portal, making it much more user friendly.

*The African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) is an inter-governmental organization (IGO) that facilitates cooperation among member states in intellectual property matters, with the objective of pooling financial and human resources, and seeking technological advancement for economic, social, technological, scientific and industrial development. ARIPO is a body with which one can seek intellectual property protections within the ARIPO member states.

Natalie Moyo

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