Gray Area

IPR Act Regulations promulgated - the death knell for open science in South Africa?


, , ,

The Deprtment of Science and Technology has published the Regulations for the implementation of the IPR Act of 2008. These have serious implications for researchers and the universities and research institutions they work in and even more dire implications for open access and open innovation in South Africa.

I set out below my preliminary reading of what these Regulations might mean. However, they are not very well drafted and contain some confusions, so it would be good to share reactions from researchers on how they see this affecting their research practices. The time for responding is short - we have until 8 May.

How this relates to what is happening in the rest of the world will follow in subsequent blogs, as will feedback as UCT and other institutions grapple with what this means for how research will be carried out in South Africa.

A brief recap for those who are not familiar with the Act.

The full name of the Act is The Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Funded Research and Development Act, 2008. (I blogged the Draft Bill last year here and here and here and here and here) In 2009, one would expect a piece of legislation dealing with publicly funded research to be dealing with access to research, but that could not be further from the case of this legislation. To put it briefly, this is designed to ensure that all publicly funded research gets intellectual property protection for the purposes of commercialisation. This seems to be the only way that this legislation can conceive of public benefit from research. Open innovation, open science, open access and open source have to get special permission from the bureaucrats before they will be allowed.

The provisions of the Act

Before looking at the Regulations, researchers need to grapple with the basic definitions and provisions in the Act:   

  1. The central provision of the Act is that universities carrying out research from public funds have to assess and report on all research carried out in the university that might have the potential for IPR protection and commercialisation. (Which being translated means they are patentable – but beware; it means more than that, as set out below.)
  2. If the university/researcher does not want to lock down the IP in the research, then this decision has to be made according to the guidelines provided by the national IP Management Office (NIPMO) and it has to be notified of this decision. NIPMO then reviews this decision and can, if it disagrees with the university, acquire ownership of and obtain statutory protection for the IP in this research. In other words, the university and its researchers no longer have the right to make their own decisions on how best to ensure the impact of their research.
  3. Research funded by private organisations only counts as not being publicly funded if the full cost of the research is covered, including all direct and indirect costs (15b). Does this mean that if you are running a research programme with donor funding, but UCT supports your office and computer infrastructure, your research is subject to this Act?

How is intellectual property defined in the Act?

In other words, what does this really mean for researchers and who would be affected by it? The primary focus of this legislation is clearly patents, but those researchers who think that their work has nothing to do with patents in South African law need to think again.

The definition of IP in the Act excludes copyrights in published works, and includes ‘creations of the mind’ that are capable of being protected under South African and foreign IP law. That means that software and business processes, patentable in the US but not in SA, have to be considered in terms of this Act. Databases, which are protected under the EU database provisions, would also fall under this legislation. Trademarks, artistic works and designs would presumably have to be considered, too.

It is clear therefore that researchers in humanities, social sciences, business school, and architecture cannot sit back on the assumption that these provisions would not apply to them because what they do is not normally patentable. Nor can any unit working with open source software development. The scale of what this might mean for the university IP office and for individual researchers is daunting; even more so the volume of forms to be filled in. But most of all, it is the loss of freedom for researchers and the university to make their own decisions on how to manage the dissemination of their work and how to ensure its impact that is most threatening.

What do the Regulations say?

When a decision is made on whether or not a piece of research requires protection, the only basis on which the researcher or the university can make this decision on their own is that it is not patentable (2 (2)). In any other case, a form has to be filled in and the decision referred to NIMPO. The criteria that NIMPO will apply include the sector, potential contribution of the research, commercial and social potential and the ability for this work to be protected under any law anywhere in the world.

Provisions are then made for what happens if the State takes over the IP rights (2(8)) and what happens if permission is given for them to be waived (in which case they have to be offered to the funders of the research or, where there is no private funding, to the researcher concerned) (2 (9,10,11)).

Researchers will need to think about how this sits with the funders of research that they carry out.

 

Open science, open access and open source

There is confusion in the Regulations between public domain, open source and open access (see Andrew Rens's blog on this question), but Section 2 (12) appears to be trying to say that where a the university wants to make research open access or develop open source software, it has to fill in a form and apply to NIMPO. If the need to make the research open comes from the requirements of cooperative research agreements or funder requirements, then this has to have prior approval from NIMPO. According to the Regulations, NIMPO then decides whether this agreement is in the best interests of the country or not (2 (14)).

 

It looks as though the university and its research departments will not be able to join collaborative research ventures or accept funding from donors who require open dissemination without government permission.

Andrew Rens thinks this might be unconsitutional - see his Aliquid Nova blog.

Given the requirements of some of UCT’s largest research funders, this is somewhat startling. This would also be threatening to a department like the Centre for Educational Technology, which has contracts with an international consortium, Sakai,  that requires assurance that all software developed has no IP restrictions and is open source.

How is this going to affect UCT’s research collaborations and research funding agreements?

 

The NIPMO Structures 

What skills will the NIMPO Advisory Board, which will oversee all this, bring to bear? It will consist of people chosen for their ‘knowledge and experience in intellectual property management, commercialisation, technology transfer, and business skills’ (4 (6)). In other words, people without special research knowledge or familiarity with disciplinary fields will be making decisions about how research could best impact on the country.

 

Revenue sharing

Researchers do get the right to revenue earned from the commercialisation of their research (7(1). However, the deductions that can be made before this happens sound somewhat threatening, as they include expenses for ‘filing, prosecution and maintenance of statutory protection; bank fees and other charges for collecting revenues due; defence, validation and enforcement of IP rights; legal advice; market research, marketing and sales, travel costs and admin expenses, up to R1 million (7 (2)). In truth, there is not much likely to be left after all this. If I were a researcher in this position, I would not be holding my breath. Perhaps, like the music recording industry, the creator will land up owing more than is earned.

 

Licences

There are detailed provisions for how NIPMO will intervene in the granting of exclusive licences, offshore deals, assignment of rights. In the case of exclusive licences granted, NIPMO can walk in and reverse these licences if they think that commercialisation is not adequate.

 

Auditing and retrospective licensing

Then there is a retrospective clause that says NIMPO can audit a university’s disclosure of IP. The university is required to fill in forms twice a year detailing the IP governed by the Act and how it has been commercialised. Then NIMPO can audit annually. If it finds that any IP has not been declared, then it can retroactively enforce assignment of the rights (11 (2)). 

 Does this mean that the university’s ability to contract with donors who require assurances of open IP management will be compromised? How could the university offer such assurances if they can be reversed by NIMPO at a later date?

This will surely mean that super-caution will be exercised by submitting everything for approval before research contracts begin. And what effect would that have on research effectiveness?

 

Research collaboration

When it comes to dealing with private organisations and institutions, the university could licence a share of the IP to a co-owner. If the university enters into a collaborative research agreement, it must retain ownership of any pre-existing IP and commercialise this in line with the Act; retain IP rights in what it produces, or jointly own IP. It must ensure the commercialisation in SA of this collaborative research. 

If the partners in the collaboration require open licences, then NIPMO has to approve before the university can enter such an agreement. NIPMO will publish guidelines on how universities have to manage such collaborations (12 (3)). 

How will universities manage their research collaborations with this level of interference? And what effect will this have on research output and its social and economic impact?

Leave a comment


Eve: a stunningly comprehensive assessment...thanks!! Now as to "Research funded by private organisations only counts as not being publicly funded if the full cost of the research is covered, including all direct and indirect costs" Well, that's pretty much everything, isn't it?? The CSIR is the only organisation that could get away with not being bound by the Act, given their costing structures; the rest of us...that's where some very imaginative definitions of "all direct and indirect costs" - which would presumably include mine and others' salaries - would have to come in. Yet another well-intentioned (hopefully) but badly constructed chunk of legislation, right up there with the Biodiversity Protection Act in terms of impeding rather than helping research.



This comes from an innovation policy framework that is convinced that patents are the measure of a country's innovation effectiveness. So to force as many patents out of the universities as possible is supposed to ensure economic growth. However, the Bayh-Dole Act on which this legislation is modelled is nearly 30 years old and its effectiveness is being challenged from many quarters, particularly in a changed environment. The real problem, though, is that the South Africa Act is far too inflexible and coercive. I think university researchers need to get involved and make submissions on these regulations



This is truly terrifying. One can but wonder who put out lawmakers up to this. The very principles of learning(sharing) are at stake here.