By Ogova Ondego
Published January 2, 2009

Advancement in technology in the 21st century can be cited as one of the best things that ever happened in our lives. But, ironically, it appears to live up to the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 that say there is nothing new under the sun: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Should such words ring true as far as creativity is concerned?

In December 2008 ArtMatters.Info reported that the National Museums of Kenya had unveiled a “new” logo that, suspiciously, not only looked like it was copied from another organisation but also appeared to challenge the definition of intellectual property rights, copyright, trade marks and patents. A glance at the logo of the National Museum of Dance of New York and that of Kenya’s house of heritage leaves little doubt that King Solomon’s observation in Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 may be true of today’s age, after all.

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In March 2008 Tanzanian Bongo Flava musician Prof Jay (Joseph Haule) accused Ugandan musician Jose Chameleon (Joseph Mayanja) of having stolen the beat of his 2005 recording, Nikusaidieje (How May I assist you?).

The issue was only put to rest when the creator of the beat, producer P-Funk, aka Majani (Paul Matthysse), exonerated Chameleon from blame saying he, the owner of the beat, had sold his product to Chameleon just as he had done Prof Jay; he said Prof Jay did not own the rights to the beat.

A few months later, in November 2008, Burundian performer, Serge Nkurunziza, accused his Kenyan counterpart, Nameless (David Mathenge) of not just having “stolen” the beat of his Amahera song but also having translated its lyrics into Kiswahili/Sheng and called the song Salari (Salary). Nkurunziza had told BBC radio that he had done the song three years earlier before Nameless “stole” it.

Admitting the beat was the same due to a studio mix-up, Nameless denied he had translated Nkurunziza’s lyrics. He said he had bought the beat from a Ugandan producer, Washington.

According to the East African Standard newspaper, Washington “cleared the Kenyan musician’s name claiming that he made the contested beat for Nameless at Blu Zebra Studios.”

Perhaps Washington’s claims settled the dispute between Nameless and Nkurunziza just as P-Funk’s did Prof Jay and Chameleon?

Many electronic gadgets from South East Asia on the East African market confuse consumers by mimicking well known western brands. They include SQONY (for SONY) and PHILIBS (for PHILLIPS).

Some time back, Unilever sued Bidco when the latter introduced the “Gold Band” margarine in Kenya alleging Bidco had copied its “Blue Band” margarine brand. Also not to be quickly forgotten was the lawsuit Group 4 Security brought against Securicor; the latter had just re-branded itself Group 4 Security saying that is how it trades in the United Kingdom.

Also not to be swept under the carpet are the similarities between soft drinks Mecca Cola and Coca Cola, and East African Breweries’ Alvaro and Coca Cola’s Novida.

Coca Cola is a soft drink that has been produced since 1886 by an American company while Mecca Cola came on the scene in 2000 allegedly to counter the ubiquitous American Coca Cola.

Though not much has been said about Novida and Alvaro, one cannot fail to notice the surface features that may confuse consumers. Both products are non-alcoholic and packed in green bottles.

The “borrowing” of ideas without acknowledging their sources in today’s world is becoming common place not just among Somali pirates, and manufacturers of soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and margarines, but also among musicians, mass media practitioners and academics.

Worldwide, individuals have rights over their thoughts and inventions that they produce in form of books or songs. In 1710, the Statute of Anne came into existence as the first real copyright act to protect these rights.
In 1886, the Berne Convention stated that no one is supposed to apply for copyright as the rights automatically come once the work is fixed.

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Copyright is the right in law to be the only producer or seller of a book, play or film for a fixed period, while trademark is a special name, sign or word marked on a product to show that it (trademark) is to be used by a particular producer only. Patent rights, on the other hand, cover inventions.

Kenya has various laws to govern patents, trademarks and copyright.

Other than for national laws of various countries, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which aims to set higher benchmarks for intellectual property and rights enforcement, is likely to come into force in 2009. Countries will join this agreement on a voluntary basis when it comes into force.  The trade agreement is in response to the increased number of unfair play exhibited by many people within the various sectors like those highlighted in this article. It insists on skill, judgment and labour of individuals and not just mere reproduction of works by others.

Fair play has been downplayed in many situations when companies design ‘new’ logos or launch ‘new’ products. Unless the various individuals and organisations coming up with new products and services are living up to the words of King Solomon son of David, King of ancient Israel that there is nothing new that exists under the sun, the 21st century demands that truly creative people stand up.

Additional reporting by Bethsheba Achitsa