Intellectual Property

What is IP?

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) defines Intellectual Property as creations of the mind. This means everything from scientific discoveries to songs. By referring to these things as property organisations such as WIPO seek to give them the same status as physical properties such as land or tools.

Most governments agree with this, so it is possible to own and trade in intellectual property in most countries, much as you would with physical property.

However there are some obvious differences between intellectual and physical property which have resulted in confusion and rebellion.

A resource that never runs out

When you create a piece of physical property you can hold it in your hand. Give it away or sell it, and you no longer hold it. Intellectual property on the other hand remains with you when you pass it to others. For many this undermines its status as property. Unlike physical property, intellectual property increases in value when you share it with others. As the age old adage goes Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to catch fish and he will never go hungry. He may also teach others so they no longer go hungry either.

On the internet the frailty of intellectual property has been most apparent in the sharing of music. Music can be shared easily with countless other people using the internet. This has angered many people who make their living through selling music – it undermines the way they make their living. Music sharers argue that most of these people do not create music. They just trade in the CDs by which other people can listen to it. The internet cuts out these middle-men. Musicians are still free to make money in other ways, such as playing live to a paying audience. After all, before the development of CDs, records or tapes there were musicians making a living through performance.

Another area of controversy around IP is in the scientific community. Science is founded on the sharing of intellectual property. Isaac Newton said that his discoveries where made by standing on the shoulders of giants, referring to scientists before him. From the viewpoint made possible by their discoveries he could see further and make his own.

Today, in order to make a living, many scientists work directly or indirectly for businesses that obtain ownership of new discoveries. Businesses seek to use these discoveries to gain advantages over their competitors. This would be thwarted by scientists working for different companies and sharing their ideas. In order to be paid many scientists have to prevent others from standing on their shoulders and seeing further.

In both cases we have a tension between advantages for everyone, and advantages for a few. Some would make the argument that without benefits for the few there is no incentive for scientists or musicians to innovate. Others say that the middle-men are no longer necessary in a world where communication is so fast, cheap and easy.

How could this possibly affect Tanzanians?

What on earth is the effect of this on people living in communities with limited access to modern communication techniques? Why should Tanzanians take an interest in IP?

Protecting local IP

Intellectual property is not just the realm of big businesses. Every single person on the planet has the right to benefit from their intellectual property.

The problem is that many small scale societies do not place a monetary value on their knowledge. Farming or medical techniques passed down for millennia amongst groups such as the Maasai and Chagga are intellectual property. However,
who would be so bold to claim they are theirs?

Intellectual property can be something of a land grab – the first to stake claim to a piece of IP becomes the owner. For people in smaller communities this may be hard to achieve, and there is the risk of those better read in the legalities of the system acquiring IP that is not the result of their, or their ancestors hard work.

Farming and IP

The people that may be the first to seriously meet the sharp edge of IP laws may be farmers. The genes of plants can be discovered and therefore become intellectual property. New strains of crops can be claimed as IP. In 1997, RiceTec, a multinational company claimed a patent on basmati rice to worldwide horror. The crop had been grown in India for thousands of years, yet here a relatively young company was seeking to control who could trade in this staple crop!

The use of more legitimate IP can also lead to controversy. Recently a Canadian farmer was sued by the multinational seed company Monsanto for keeping seeds from the previous year’s crops and planting them, in contravention of the license. Comically, the farmer had never signed a license, and claimed that his field had been contaminated by seeds blown in from a neighbouring farm.

As you can see, the world of intellectual property can intrude into the more physical world. It is likely to do so more and more all over the world. It is something even Tanzanians will need to understand.

Interesting links

Originally published in Arusha Times 331


What if the best is past?

Leonard Osborne woke with a start. The last words in his head, rapidly fading as most dreams do: What if the best is now past?

The sheets beneath him felt clammy, sticking slightly and abrasing his back as he rolled over onto his side. Tired as he was, the bed was no longer comfortable and he would have to get up whatever the time was. Dawnish light broke through the gap between plain curtains. He hadn’t woken at dawn for many weeks. There had been no need to. He rolled his tongue around inside his mouth. The disturbing and unpleasant taste like wallpaper paste again. The displacing feeling of yet another tiny ulcer formed at the back of his throat. He manoeuvred his body to the edge of the bed and tried to swivel himself around into a sitting position, but got no further than getting his calves out over the edge of the bed before the temptation to lie in the damp greasy sheets started tugging him back.
What if the best is now past? Could he have tipped over the top of the mountain, from the crawl to the top, a pinnacle that may have been reached while he slept, and now was heading down the steep slope back to the sea level of oblivion? No. He had felt pretty much like this the week before. If he had reached the peak of his physical condition it had happened some time ago. Perhaps he had reached a wide gently sloping plateau of mild ill health and gradual deterioration.

Must move my body – he thought to himself. He twitched one foot and then the other. Get the blood cells pumping. Get my brains working. The cold was starting to penetrate his calf muscles, the hairs now raised on drumlins of flesh. A slight motion ground his body over something gritty. Disgust lurched him into the sitting position he had failed to attain minutes before. Lowering his feet to the permafrost concrete floor that sucked all heat from his feet, a feeling greatly relieved by reaching into his boxer shorts and giving his pubis a good scratch, he settled forward for the final burst of contemplation that might actually move him out of the bed and into some form of action in the bleak room. Five minutes of deep bollock scratching later and the light from outside was beginning to look more like day light, less orange tinged by the sulphurous street lights. Perfect timing – he thought. The lights are out. The council has deemed it truly daytime.

With that he pushed himself up to a standing position, and stepped forwards towards the open suitcase across the floor by the wall. His pants and socks were bundled in a turdish pile, turned in on themselves like discarded moebius strips, on top of his casually folded trousers. It is cold enough to wear these for another day – he decided. I am not sweating like in summer – he justified, comfortably avoiding the sensation of slipping his feet into biscuit like fresh socks, but ignoring the slight crust on the sole of one, where he must have stepped in something dropped on the kitchen floor the night before. He briefly contemplated turning the pants inside out, but something of its rebelliousness dissuaded him, and he slipped off his sleeping boxer shorts with their gaping fly and slid up the underpants which would cradle him gently for the rest of the day. More gently, for they had lost some of their springiness through the previous day’s exertions. Now for trousers, to stem the rapid flow of dwindling warmth from his bristling legs into the heat death of the bedroom. Fibres tugging at hairs they were up. The pockets, containing his wallet and mobile phone had flipped around his thighs. Lenny had to take the seat down again and readjust the pockets so they were accessible and didn’t make his hips bulge.

The light was growing with such force it might almost open the curtains on its own, desperate to enter the room and rampage over anyone who dared to ignore the days fearsome birth. I must not stop – Lenny thought to himself reaching over to the shirt wrapped over a coat hanger hooked onto a nail that had protruded from the wall since he moved in to the room. The cold sleeves sheathed his arms. He un-tucked the once stiff collar and buttoned the shirt down from the second to top button downwards. Tucking the shirt into trousers required once again undoing the belt, button and fly giving enough room to half smooth the shirt tails between his legs and the inside of the trousers. Doing the belt back up he tucked the free end into the loops with a finality that said, I am dressed now. All I need is shoes.

The Pen was mightier than the sword

The pen was mightier than the sword once. The pen was a metaphor for power. Those who wielded the pen wielded not just now but forever. The cuts it made had an immortality, or at least longevity as long as the paper remained. The pen represented the flow of will from the writer to his audience in the same way as the sword represented the flow of will from wielder to enemy. Both served as ways to try and change the behaviour of another person.

From the brain to the arm to the hand to the business edge, delivering ink onto writing surface. The pen and paper offer us endless possibilities. A pen can be used to write in any language, using any script. We can use it to draw.

Using a pen is simple, almost as intuitive as using a knife. We can forget about the technology and just watch the ink slide onto the paper leaving behind the result of our efforts.

After thousands of years of using writing implements, the demand for distributing many copies of the same piece of writing created a more industrial tool – the printing press begat the typewriter, the photocopier and ultimately the personal computer with desktop publishing software.
With each development came an increased burden of technological knowledge. In order to use the communication device technical knowledge and skill had to be acquired. With each extra technical skill and piece of knowledge came an opportunity for distraction. This did exist with pens – quills needed cutting, fountain pens needed filling and cleaning and blotting. Typewriters jam, photocopiers need refilling with toner. And computers connected to the internet offer so many possibilities to do anything but write.

I feel the need to return to the pen, even though I can write, sorry, type more quickly and neatly. It is easier to store things neatly on a hard drive than in folders which open suddenly spilling out un-numbered pages…

The strange world of 419

Anyone who has been online for a year or two will have received hundreds, possibly thousands, of junk emails. Most of us shut out the deluge by learning to recognise what is and isn’t a bogus message, or setting up systems to automatically filter junk from our inboxes.

Every so often messages will get through these slim lines of defence. Every so often you will read one of these messages. Strangely enough, a high proportion of these messages seem to come from Africa – usually Nigeria or Zimbabwe.

The email usually looks something like this:

Dear Sir,

We are top ranking officials in the Nigerian government. During the military regime in our country, top ranking officials regularly over invoiced various ministry contracts. We have located a sum of $140 million resulting from this over invoicing. Because of our positions, we cannot access this money in our own names. We need a reliable contact in another country who can arrange for the money to be transferred into a foreign bank account. You have been identified by us as such a person.

We have agreed to share the money thus:

  1. 70% for us (the officials)
  2. 30% for the foreign partner (you)

In order to complete the transaction please contact us with a suitable business name and details of a bank account into which the funds can be transferred.


Made up ministers name (Dr.)

The emails always have the same features:

  • a phenomenal amount of money (usually money no one will notice missing
  • despite the huge sum)
  • the chance for you to share in it
  • the potential for you to steal all of it

Often the messages are typed ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Some messages refer to lottery prizes, others claim to be from a rich person who wants to donate money to a church and needs help organising it.

As implausible as these messages seem, there are many people who fall for them.

In 2001, the FBI reports, American citizens lost over $117 million dollars to internet fraud scams, including ones like this.

These scams are known as 419 scams. This is because they originated in Nigeria where 419 is the section of penal code covering fraudsters.

419 scams proceed like this:

  1. A gullible and possibly desperate person receives the email and sees the opportunity for wealth beyond their wildest dreams. They respond enthusiastically to the email.
  2. The con man replies and begins to build a relationship with their victim. Several emails may go back and forth, discussing business, family and often religion. When the fraudsters feel they have built up a sufficient level of trust they will ask the victim to transfer some money to the Nigerian account in order to check the transfer route or to confirm that the victim is indeed trustworthy.
  3. Depending on how much money the victim has transferred, the con men may give up with what they have. In some occasions they will see the potential to extract more money from the victim.
  4. They may request the victim’s bank details and signature. Shortly afterwards the victim will find their bank account empty!
  5. In order to make the transfer, some money may be required to bribe officials.
  6. In some extreme cases, victims have been lured to Nigeria to meet the fraudsters in person. This has resulted in the abduction of victims, who are held to ransom, and in at least one case murdered.

These letters are often funny and appear extraordinarily naive. Since so many people fall for them, and that some nasty things have happened as a result, lawmakers around the world take them very seriously. In January this year 52 people were arrested in Amsterdam in connection with these scams.

The funny side

Not everyone takes this seriously though. There are a number of web sites out there documenting correspondence with the scammers. The Spam Letters is a site devoted to baiting junk mailers, and has a section on 419 scams. The victims have turned the tables on the gangsters and wind them up with often hilarious results. Some have even convinced the fraudsters to send photographs of themselves doing silly things. One has a young Nigerian with a large fish balanced on his head. Another holds a sign proclaiming they are an obscene object. An incredibly large number of scammers have been drawn into ludicrous correspondence.

What to do if you receive one of these emails

Emails offering things too good to be true usually are. No stranger ever contacted anyone and gave them millions of dollars. These people are out to rob you. Do not believe that you can get something for nothing!

You have three choices if you receive one of these emails – ignore it, forward it to the appropriate authorities, or try and wind these criminals up, giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Sites that turn the tables

Originally published in Arusha Times 329