|Expert warns: Lebanon losing out on intellectual property 'Ignorance' is costing country's inventors - The Daily Star
|French Embassy official claims that despite new laws, the number of novel designs is far lower than that of trademarks.
The number of industrial designs registered at the Economy Ministry as of August of this year is 71 - 30 times less than the number of trademarks. This figure pales in comparison to France, where industrial designs usually are just two times less than the number of trademarks.
The ministry itself may not be the only culprit behind Lebanon's low inventiveness.
"It is not an uncommon thing to find Lebanese scientists who discover a new variety of plants at a research university throwing a big news conference to announce their findings," said Thibault Lancrenon, the regional attache for intellectual property at the French Embassy. He is also a representative of the French Industrial Property National Institute, which has been working the Economy Ministry since 1998 to upgrade Lebanon's intellectual property right laws.
"They hardly know that they are losing the right to patent this invention by making their discovery public information."
Pure ignorance may have led Lebanon to lose a number of inventions to pirates.
Educating inventors about their rights and cracking down on violators are not easy tasks for the Intellectual Property Protection Office in Lebanon (IPPO), with only seven staff.
"Many Lebanese view the IPPO office as a simple mailbox: a place to deposit a trademark," said Lancrenon. "But the IPPO office is not solely to blame. All Lebanese administrations have to inform the public that if they want to patent something, they need to keep it a secret. If Lebanon wants to be considered a leading intellectual property rights center in the Arab world, it will have to be active in diffusing information."
Diffusing information would certainly help Lebanon increase its number of patents and reclaim its intellectual property rights leadership in the Middle East, which began in 1924 when pre-independence Lebanon drafted its first law protecting intellectual property. "Nearly 95 percent of the deposits made at the IPPO are for trademarks," he said.
But even trademarks registered at the ministry have dwindled over the years.
"It practically declined by 50 percent between 1997 and 2001," said Lancrenon. Although the number of patents has multiplied by 20 between 1990 and 2000, the increase may not be the direct result of more inventions.
"Considering the main sectors in which patents are deposited, it is likely that the majority of patent applications come from non-Lebanese companies," said Lancrenon.
The number of industrial designs may also be low because Lebanese law accepts protection through copyright or industrial designs.
But industrial designs are often a better choice for protection, particularly for furniture and textiles.
"It is important to register some designs, because they give a precise date for creation," Lancrenon said. "So when you go before a court and you can show a date for the creation and stop a third party that intends to use it."
The IPPO's responsibilities are bound to increase as the country overhauls its intellectual property right laws to conform with a World Trade Organization agreement called Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS.
Lebanon, which held its first WTO working party meeting last month and is planning to hold a second meeting in early 2003, is thought to already have in place most of the TRIPS requirements.
"True, the main problem may not be what's inside Lebanon's laws, but the enforcement of these laws, which TRIPS stresses on," he said. "But the IPPO office does not have sufficient personnel to really fight piracy efficiently. The office should also be transformed into an independent government-owned corporation."
According to the ministry, Lebanon has concluded agreements to meet four out of TRIPS' seven major requirements. Other agreements on trademarks and geographical locations are near completion.
Some industrialists have complained these laws have been sitting too long in the ministry's drawers, because the drafts had to be shared with the Syrian government, which itself is drafting a trademark law.
The Geographical Location draft bill is seen as particularly important for agro-industries, which can use this law to protect its products on par with France, which does not allow other nations to sell wines under the Champagne brand name.
"In 2000, the ministry finished drafting a bill for protecting wine and there are discussions to set up a wine institute that would allow Lebanon to protect its spirits as France does," said Lancrenon.
But the existing agreements on intellectual property rights still have loopholes that have to be filled in order to conform with WTO rules, according to Lancrenon. The copyright laws of 1999 and patent law of 2000, drafted to be in conformity with WTO, contain troublesome clauses.
"Take for example the famous article 25 in the copyright law for software," he said. This article allows certain educational institutions to copy software for educational purposes.
Although this article has yet to be amended, the Education, Culture and Economy Ministries reached a tentative agreement this year to close the loophole, according to the head of the IPPO office, Rahhal Faour.
But another lingering thorn is article 47 in the patent law, which pharmaceuticals firms argue forces them to divulge confidential information about their products when they register at the Health Ministry.
"Pharmaceuticals industries may face problems if this confidential information is used unlawfully," Lancrenon warned.
The Daily Star