Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 June 2001
Issue No.539
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IPR: the mother of invention?

Two years in the making, Egypt's new intellectual property rights (IPR) law is proving difficult to deliver and on 18 June Egypt missed its deadline to hand in a new law to the WTO. Niveen Wahish looks into the reason behind the delay and what is at stake

"We are running late," said Mohamed Hossam Lutfi, attorney at law, and member of the committee which drafted the much debated Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) law. The law should have been ready back in 2000, when Egypt was due to begin complying with the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). But lawyers and business are still waiting.

In spite of fears that the global principles of IPR symbolise tools within the hands of the advanced world to further monopolise and exploit less-developed countries, there is an obvious need for a new law in Egypt today. A law that not only protects the traditional areas of IPR but conforms with the more comprehensive standards set by TRIPS. The draft, currently doing the rounds of the specialised committees of the People's Assembly, must be approved by the house before being presented to the WTO, which is responsible for ensuring that it is compatible with TRIPS. The deadline at the WTO was 18 June. Egypt currently has three laws that protect various aspects of property rights: the trademarks law (which dates back to 1939); the patents and industrial designs law (dating back to 1949) and the copyrights law, (which dates back to 1954 and was modified in 1994).

The draft of the new law (which runs to 200 articles) covers areas protected by existing laws as well as new areas, such as neighbouring rights; semiconductor topography; undisclosed information; appellations of origin; and plant varieties.

Pre-IPR days: Leonardo da Vinci's sketches, drawn around 500 years ago continue to inspire inventors to this day. Some of the concepts shown here such as the movable scaffolding (top right) were incorporated into the invention that is the modern airplane

The draft is divided into four books. The first deals with patents, utility models, semiconductor topography and undisclosed information. It will be applied by the Ministry of State for Scientific Research and the Ministry of Health. The second is concerned with trademarks, appellations of origin and industrial designs. These are the preserve of the Ministry of Internal Trade and Supply. The third book deals with intellectual property rights and neighbouring rights. These come under the purview of the Ministry of Culture and Communications and the Ministry of Information Technology. The fourth book focuses on plant varieties and will be applied by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation.

Although the draft law comprehensively covers property rights, clearly stating the length of protection and the penalties for violation, many argue that it is not enough simply to outlaw theft of intellectual property in Egypt. "Enforcement is the primary concern," argues Hoda Serageddin, patent agent.

Lutfi agrees, adding that attitudes need to change in favour of respecting property rights. He suggests creating court divisions that specialise in IPR disputes.

If Egypt fails to protect intellectual property rights, other countries, whose citizens or companies are harmed, can complain to the WTO. Once a complaint is filed, attempts are made to settle the dispute amicably. If these fail, a panel is formed to investigate and issue blame. If dispute settlement fails, the injured party may then take retaliatory measures as compensation. For example, it could impose trade sanctions, taxes or customs on Egyptian exports.

Lutfi argues that, despite the time taken to pass the draft law, Egypt is serious about abiding by its international IPR agreements. It is hoped that this will be an incentive to international investors, who will feel safe knowing they enjoy the same protection in Egypt as they do in the West. IPR protection is also among the criteria that make Egypt eligible for a free trade area agreement with the US.

But IPR, in this age of globalisation and conflicting trade interests, is not so simple. The following articles focus on some of the specific controversies that surround the current draft law and its ramifications for Egyptian industry and trade.

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