The UCT Faculty of Law has once again proved its research prowess with Professor Caroline Ncube being awarded the Research Chair in Intellectual Property, Innovation and Development through the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI). This comes as a well-deserved acknowledgement of Ncube’s contribution to the field of intellectual property law and her focus on the promotion of public interest and innovation.
Ncube is the fourth research chair in the law faculty and she joins more than 40 others across UCT. Among many other achievements, Ncube has also served as deputy dean of postgraduate studies and head of the Department of Commercial Law.
Intellectual property to improve lives
Ncube came to UCT as a lecturer in 2005, after completing her Master of Laws at the University of Cambridge, teaching at two other universities and practising briefly as an attorney. While carrying a full teaching load and raising two young sons, Ncube also took up her PhD at UCT and graduated in 2011.
Throughout these academic pursuits, Ncube has refined her interest in the way intellectual property law has the potential to positively impact access to education, health and economic opportunities. This would mean, for example, ensuring that copyright laws protecting textbooks and other academic writing, do not prevent students from accessing learning materials. Also, ensuring that patent laws that protect medicines do not hinder access for those who need them.
In line with the research chair’s overarching aim to create a cohort of intellectual property specialists who appreciate the developmental aspects of the discipline, Ncube has outlined a five-year plan for supervising master’s and PhD students. Along with this, she has put together a research and publication plan to produce knowledge on intellectual property, innovation and development.
“This research will – among other things – look at, firstly, how copyright law can be enhanced to enable better access to educational resources,” Ncube explained. “Secondly, how patent law can be improved to better facilitate access to medicines.
“Thirdly, how copyright and other intellectual property laws can better serve cultural industries so that people in the sector can generate better economic return from their activities.”
Weak spots in South African intellectual property law
South African intellectual property law is in flux due to the development of the Intellectual Property Policy and the ongoing copyright reform process. Phase 1 of the policy has recently been adopted by the cabinet. Ncube and her colleagues have been participating in the policy development and legislative reform processes in various ways.
Among other things, she has submitted comments on the Draft Intellectual Property Policy of the Republic of South Africa Phase 1 – released by the Department of Trade and Industry in August last year, and provided technical support and presented workshops to parliamentarians. She believes there is much scope for improvement, but that the policy is on the right track for advancing a balanced approach to intellectual property rights in line with the South African Constitution.
“It is important to carefully calibrate intellectual property law to facilitate both everyday use and creative or educational use of protected works.”
Ultimately, Ncube sees intellectual property law as having a profound impact on innovation because it determines who owns intellectual property and how it can be accessed and used by others. She also argues that current patent-protection requirements and application processes need to be strengthened and improved through, for example, examination of applications.
“We need a process for examining applications that ensures only deserving inventions are protected,” Ncube says. “Public interest mechanisms such as compulsory licenses should also be used to deliver access.”
An example of the latter would be giving a local manufacturer or distributor the right to produce or distribute patented medicine for life-threatening diseases. By doing this, government can help bring down costs, increase access to medicine and save citizens’ lives.
Power of access to information and collaboration
Another important aspect of creating an intellectual property landscape that stimulates innovation, Ncube argues, is access to information.
“Innovators inevitably rely on existing knowledge, ideas, products and processes, so it is important to carefully calibrate intellectual property law to facilitate both everyday use and creative or educational use of protected works,” she explains. “In certain sectors – such as pharmaceuticals – patent and other intellectual property law protections directly impact the rights to life and health.”
Ncube is also an advocate for collaboration. In her recent inaugural lecture, titled ‘Crafting intellectual property law for Africa’, Ncube notes that innovators on the continent seem to favour collaboration. “Open innovation and collaboration yield good results in developing nations,” she says.
Facilitating open innovation and collaboration is the main purpose of Open AIR, a collaborative network of researchers in 15 African countries, Canada and elsewhere, of which Ncube is a steering committee member. Open AIR’s current research focuses on collaborative innovation for the benefit of businesses and identifying governance policies that support inclusive sharing of innovation benefits.
With a solid foundation to build on, Ncube’s SARChI chair promises to yield more valuable research in the field of intellectual property law. She hopes her own research, as well as all research done under her supervision, will continue to be a catalyst for creating a legal framework for intellectual property in South Africa that is not only more encouraging of innovation, but also serves public interest at all times.
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