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Africa’s Creative Sector: Why Intellectual Property Matters

Africa’s Creative Sector: Why Intellectual Property Matters

“When you play the flute in Zanzibar all Africa dances,” goes a Zanzibari saying. If we can “play the flute” in Africa, by exploiting our cultural and artistic wealth in ways that contribute to inclusive growth and social progress across the continent, we could get the world to “dance” with us. But this will work only if Africa projects its own culture by exploring ways in which instruments like intellectual property can advance creative output.

Man playing a piano-Africa

Image By J.D. Sloan

As a high school student in Uganda, I often heard disparaging comments about culture. Music, dance and drama majors at Makerere University, a place once considered the Harvard of Africa, were considered “musiru dala dala,” or very, very, stupid. With my interests stretching from African chants to Bach cantatas, I refused to believe this. But there were, and still are, plenty of people who do. So across Africa, the arts are not included in economic development policies. There are various ways to address this failing — I discuss some of them in “An untapped economy: Africa’s Creative Sector”— but here’s some thoughts on intellectual property, a complex issue.

Strong measures to protect intellectual rights can limit the spread of ideas, leading to far-reaching consequences for immature economies. Enforcement is costly as well. “In developing countries, where human and financial resources are scarce, and legal systems not well developed, the opportunity costs of operating the system effectively are high,” observes a 2002 report by a British commission on intellectual property rights. These expenses include “the costs of scrutinizing the validity of claims to and adjudicating upon actions for infringement.”

But in the arts, widespread piracy deprives African artists of their due earnings, deprives governments of taxes, and hinders investments. Moreover, it is disconcerting that African ideas, whether artistic or not, often “bleed” for free in the rest of the world, but African nations are obliged to pay to perform, publish or use copyrighted creative works from other countries. “Copyright,” as the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization observes, “has underpinned an extraordinary modern economic success story, accounting for tens of millions of jobs worldwide,” but not in Africa itself.

As African nations grow and increase their engagement in global trade, they also need to earn from their intellectual capital. Yet in the arts there are few agencies like the Southern African Music Rights Organization, which was created in South Africa to help collect royalties for music creators. Other African countries can learn from this example and apply it to themselves.

“Education is the most powerful tool you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela said. African governments should teach the public as well as the judiciary about intellectual property. This could be done through the media and in community workshops, conferences and discussions at religious and educational institutions. Teaching about intellectual rights is one key to unlocking the potential of Africa’s cultural wealth — wealth that could contribute to shared prosperity all across the continent and bring Africa closer to the rest of the world.