Closure of patents office a heavy blow for innovation amid Covid-19 crisis
‘Some of the greatest inventions were the product of pandemics, wars and recessions’
The closure of the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission’s (CIPC) trademarks, designs, patents, and copyright offices during the lockdown raises further risk for the economy, a legal expert has said.
The CIPC, a key entity housed within the department of trade & industry, is responsible for the registration of companies, co-operatives and intellectual property rights including trademarks, patents and copyright. Its proper functioning is crucial for driving innovation and facilitating the ease of doing business, an important pull factor for global capital.
However, the CIPC announced on March 23 that its patents and designs, copyright and trademark divisions would be only available again on April 30 due to the lockdown. SA started a three-week nationwide lockdown on March 27 in a bid to contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus. Under the lockdown regulations, only essential service providers are permitted to operate.
According to Bernadette Versfeld, a partner at law firm Webber Wentzel, closing of the trademarks, designs, patents and copyright offices in SA over the national lockdown period might have unintended consequences and require reconsideration.
“It may come as a surprise to many that some of the greatest inventions were the product of pandemics, wars and recessions ... During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic efforts to improve general levels of sanitation led to the introduction of indoor plumbing systems, sewage lines and direct to home piped water supplies. The pandemic also precipitated the better regulation of foodstuffs, which in turn led to a substantial increase in the need for refrigeration and accordingly led to substantial advancements in associated technologies,” Versfeld said.
She highlighted that since November 2019, when the first person was diagnosed with Covid-19, some inspiring technology has emerged to combat and assist with fighting the disease. Camera surveillance which can measure a persons' temperature from afar; drones and robots have been repurposed to disinfect hospitals and other high risk spaces; drones are being utilised to police the streets in China to correct the behaviour of those not adhering to regulations; indoor air purification technology is being adopted to remove viral material from the air; and home Covid-19 test kits have been developed.
Businesses have also appreciated the need to repurpose themselves. Rolls-Royce, for example, has started manufacturing ventilators, Zara is making hospital scrubs and a 3D printing company in Italy is printing respirator valves for hospitals, said Versfeld.
“It is safe to say that we are also likely to witness significant innovations in SA across all sectors. We are after all a nation which is recognised for its ability to adapt and innovate. It cannot be stressed enough how important it will be for the owners of these innovations to seek appropriate advice to protect their intellectual property and in particular ensure that they capitalise on this significant opportunity to commercialise their products,” Versfeld said.
It was therefore a concern that the CIPC had closed its office dealing with patents, she said.
‘This means that in the absence of this decision [to close the office] being reversed it will unfortunately not be possible to file for trademark, design or patent protection during this time [lockdown].”
Versfeld said the negative consequences are potentially enormous for those seeking to protect and commercialise their intellectual property.
“Businesses have a difficult decision to make. They will either have to release their intellectual property to the public without any protection being filed and risk third party infringement, forcing them to litigate, or they will have to wait until May 1 to file for protection. The latter would be a most unfortunate outcome particularly where the innovation in question could either save lives, or jobs or better yet both.”