Intellectual property crimes hurt us all – Op-Ed by Ambassador Kyle McCarter

President Abraham Lincoln famously said that the U.S. patent system adds “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” Intellectual property (IP) rights assure inventors, industrial designers, and creative artists that their ideas will be protected. They can receive payment for the use of their creations and continue to invest in future innovations. Because of the strong IP rights control in the United States, IP-intensive industries account for nearly one-third of all employment and approximately 40 percent of the U.S. GDP. That’s an estimated $6.6 trillion.

In Kenya, the existing and potential benefits of strong IP systems are enormous. According to the U.S. Chamber International IP index, economies with robust IP protection are 26% more competitive globally, 39% more likely to attract foreign investment, and 55% more likely to adapt sophisticated technology. Conversely, intellectual property crimes hurt us all. For instance, counterfeits compete with legitimate manufacturing, having a global impact in lost jobs, reduced return on investment, and often, reduced tax revenue. The U.S. economy annually suffers an estimated $180 billion from theft of trade secrets; $18 billion from pirated U.S. software; and $29 billion in displaced sales due to counterfeit and pirated goods.

Kenyan media has recently published stories on the devastating impact fake goods also have on Kenya’s economy, safety, and health. Counterfeit drugs endanger the health of all Kenyans. Counterfeit auto parts threaten Kenya’s roads, drivers, and passengers. Counterfeit batteries, clothing, and personal care items damage consumer confidence and waste our hard-earned money through inferior products branded – and priced – as coming from leading companies.

This is why it’s so important that an environment of respect and protection for intellectual property flourish here and why it makes sense that Kenya’s constitution, just like ours, demands strong intellectual property protection. These protections boost innovation and secure Kenya’s national heritage from misuse.  These protections incentivize inventors and creators to make their innovation available to others and share knowledge that enables others to come up with other novel and advanced solutions.

The U.S. Embassy has been a long-time partner with Kenya in the fight to defend intellectual property rights. We supported the creation of Kenya’s Anti-Counterfeit Agency (ACA). Our support to the Kenya Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry helped the two-year “Fagia Bandia” campaign first raise the public’s awareness of the dangers of counterfeit medicines. In partnership with ACA, Kenya Copyright Board, Kenya Industrial Property Institute, and the Strathmore University Center for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law, the U.S. Embassy has facilitated panels, discussions, and events with industry experts on how Kenyan musicians, movie makers, and artists can protect and be paid for their work.

Fake products not only have negative economic impacts but can have real health and safety consequences as well. Approximately 120,000 children under the age of five die each year in sub-Saharan Africa from taking fake antimalarial drugs, according to an estimate from the Brazzaville Foundation. In some areas, as many as 60 percent of drugs sold are thought to be counterfeit.

We know that technological progress drives economic growth and that intellectual property rights provide incentives for investment in research and development and ensure that creative industries like music and film can develop and thrive. We also know that when patents and trade secrets are stolen, when counterfeit goods are produced and traded openly, when trademarks are infringed upon, competition is stymied, revenues diminish, and ultimately governments, businesses, creative artists, and consumers lose.

In March, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialized United Nations agency headquartered in Geneva, will hold elections for its next Director General. Given the very real economic significance of IP protections, and the important coordination role WIPO plays, strong WIPO leadership matters – to Kenya, the United States, and the world.  The next WIPO leader must come from a country with a record of supporting strong IP protection and enforcement.

It matters to businesses of all sizes.  It matters to inventors, creators, artists, and designers.  It matters to consumers who rely on protections that ensure product safety.  It matters to strong market economies that drive innovation. And it matters to the United States and to Kenya.