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Half a century ago, on 26 April 1970, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Convention came into force and is commemorated as World Intellectual Property (IP) Day, with the aim of increasing general understanding of IP. WIPO is a self-funded agency of the United Nations and serves as a global forum for an IP system that enables innovation and inventiveness for the benefit of humankind. Almost all sub-Saharan African countries are members of WIPO. IP refers to property that does not necessarily have any physical substance (‘creations of the mind’), such as  inventions, designs, artworks, books etc. It provides for ways in which the IP embodied in such works can be protected. This protection is provided through, for example, copyrights, patents, and trademarks. These give creators rights over information and intellectual goods that they have produced, often providing economic incentives by protecting their ideas. A WIPO resource that explains the concept of IP is Making IP Work, and the organization is a leader in protecting people’s IP to drive innovation.

Critics of the concept of IP maintain that it prevents the free flow of ideas, hampers progress, and harms the public interest by concentrating on the benefits for the few at the expense of the many. A recent example would be the patenting of Covid-19 vaccines, resulting in enormous profits for certain pharmaceutical companies at the expense of global public health. For educational materials, the mechanism used to protect the rights of the creator is the concept of copyright

At OER Africa, we respect the right of individuals to protect their IP and we understand its importance in driving innovation. However, in the case of educational materials, we believe that asserting copyright with all rights reserved may often not be the most appropriate copyright in today’s world. Many of the resources are produced with public funds, so these should be available for reuse. Higher education institutions are coming under increasing pressure to produce better results, massify enrolments, and lower costs. Embracing the concept of Open Educational Resources (OER) by replacing All Rights Reserved with an open licence (such as one of the Creative Commons licences) can assist educational institutions to provide resources that can be accessed freely, used, adapted, and redistributed by others without restriction. You can find out more about open licensing on our online tutorial called Find Open Content.

The theme of World Intellectual Property Day for 2022 is “IP and youth innovating for a better future.” Correctly, WIPO aims to encourage youth to develop their ingenuity and creativity by using the tools of the IP system to build a better future. However, we would like to urge youth to consider openly licensing educational materials they may develop, and in turn, to make use of openly licensed materials.

A Creative Commons CC BY licence allows educationists to freely access and adapt educational resources for their own contexts. Enabling materials to be used in this way is especially important in developing country settings where resources are often not available or too expensive for students to access. For example, a better future for many young children in Africa would be learning to read for understanding. The African Storybook initiative provides openly licensed picture storybooks to encourage children to read for pleasure in numerous African languages. Encouraging youth to translate existing storybooks into their own language or adapt them for a different context or reading level are ways they can contribute to the development of literacy across the continent. If they have the skills to do so, they might also contribute storybooks to the website. Authors who develop such resources retain the copyright to their work; the open licence merely enables others to use the materials for their own purposes – which is very useful for youth, teachers, and parents alike. There are currently 3,210 storybooks available on the website, in 224 languages. An evaluation of the early years of African Storybook noted that ‘The number of stories and range of languages is … a powerful testament to the open publishing model which enables one story to be adapted …. or translated into many languages, quickly and easily and cost-effectively.’

At the higher education level, academics can develop course materials which they can openly license for adaptation and use by others. Many academics are concerned that they are giving away their IP by releasing them as OER. This however is not the case; as mentioned above, the course developer is the copyright holder, and all open licences require attribution of the original source. As Butcher (2011) explains in A Basic Guide to Open Education Resources, only a small percentage of teaching and learning materials generates revenue through direct sales, while teaching resources that have commercial resale value are few, and are declining still further due to educational material being freely accessible on the Internet. Releasing them under an open licence extends their longevity and brings recognition rewards to the author. Where there is a real potential for resources to be marketed for profit, the individual or the institution can maintain all rights reserved copyright, using WIPO’s guidelines. An academic wishing to openly license their work can refer to OER Africa’s Copyright and Licensing Toolkit, to find out about licensing options, applying a licence, and understanding copyright clearance.

IP clearly has a role in driving innovation. However, it is important to remember that it is a social construct, not a law. When considering World IP Day, we believe that all educationists should aim to strike a balance between using IP for their own personal benefit and openly licensing their works for the benefit of the constituencies they work within.


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