Of Patent Cartels and a Rising Africa

The past couple of weeks has witnessed a lot of bickering among the global technology giants, with Google claiming Microsoft, Oracle and Apple are waging a war on Android through “bogus patents.”

As an ordinary person without any knowledge of the legal aspects of this highly complex issue of patents, I’m more interested in its broader effect on the creativity of the African continent. There currently is a renaissance (well soft of) going on here on the technology scene.

We are seeing a lot of startups doing amazing things with technology in their own small ways in Africa, an example being this Android powered tablet assembled in Nigeria (no it’s not an email scam) for instance. Of course it’s not at the level of the hypePad or the Galaxy tab, but it’s a step in the right direction for the continent.

However, giving the recent Apple injunction on the sale of the Samsung Galaxy tab in the EU, one cannot help but wonder when Apple and the other giants will turn their eyes on African startups and accuse them of the “slavish copying” of design and “look and feel.”

Keeping in mind that most of these companies in Africa are small in size, the question of whether they can actually battle with these patent cartels in court comes to mind. Samsung has deep enough pockets to fight Apple in court, but can Encipher do so? 

One may advance the argument that these nascent African firms command such an insignificant size of the overall market that the patent wielders will not deem it worthy to bully them. But what if these companies begin to grow? It’s worth noting that Africa is a market of close to 1 billion people, most of whom will have their first encounter with the internet on a handheld. 

It’s nigh impossible for any company starting life to navigate the patent offices to ascertain what belongs to who. In the meantime, we have these giants applying for as many patents as they can, some so vague as to mean almost nothing. The aim, to rake in licensing fees from competitors. Will the cartel kill creativity with time? Can a rising African tech scene navigate the almost treacherous sea of patent wolves? I guess only time will determine that. 

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