Urgent need to decolonise intellectual property curricula

There is an urgent need for decolonised intellectual property, or IP, law curricula in order for African states to build IP expertise that is Afrocentric and development oriented. A South African university is making progress in developing an appropriate model.

Writing in the latest edition of the World Intellectual Property Organisation journal, Professor Caroline B Ncube of the department of commercial law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said: “For an African state, decolonising IP means placing the nation’s conditions and developmental aspirations centre-stage and for law schools seeking to teach decolonised IP law curricula, it means using methodologies and learning materials that disrupt Eurocentric hegemonies."

In an article titled “Decolonising Intellectual Property Law in Pursuit of Africa’s Development”, Ncube writes that a model for what this might look like for African law schools has been developed by the Open AIR project and is currently being piloted at the University of Cape Town.

The paper has been published in the context of renewed calls by students in South Africa over the past two years for the decolonisation of curricula in that country’s universities.

In reference to the increased urgency of the calls, Ncube notes that: “The idea of decolonising IP is a notion that global South governments, some scholars and some sectors of civic society have had for a significant period of time. This is an important point to underscore in an environment that is perturbed and perplexed by the meaning of decolonisation and the perceived violence accompanying it.”

Dearth of scholarship

According to Ncube, there exists a significant body of scholarship on the teaching of IP law and focusing on decolonising legal education generally. “But there is virtually nothing on decolonising IP law curricula.”

Ncube argues that while decolonisation, which is the overthrow of direct colonial rule over territories across the globe, ended a long time ago, vestiges of colonial influences remain in many countries’ legal systems, while neo-colonial interests have also been grafted onto them.

Calls for decolonisation therefore remain valid.

“Placing Africa at the centre of African education and endeavour through the continent’s advancement has gained much support in current decolonisation calls and IP can be tailored to advance this development dialogue,” she says.

Ncube suggests that a starting point in the process of decolonisation of law could be an examination, through research processes and political practices, of current legal systems to determine to what extent they are influenced by colonial and neo-colonial interests.

Decolonising methodologies

“Such an examination would also entail a scrutiny of scholarship on those systems through ‘research process (and political practices) that seek to change the hegemonic ordering of knowledge production’. Such ‘decolonising methodologies’ are an essential tool in the deconstruction of ‘a canon that attributes truth only to the Western way of knowledge production’,” she writes.

According to Ncube decolonising the curriculum requires deep reflection about what is taught, from which perspective (Eurocentric or Afrocentric) it is taught and by whom it is taught – all of which speak to the source and authorship of learning materials and its distribution models.

“These are important considerations because they infuse the learning materials with a particular worldview and impact the accessibility of the material. The perspective adopted has far-reaching consequences because it schools a future generation in a particular way about IP law and this in turn will impact society generally when those schooled in these perspectives take up positions in government, industry and other areas in the future,” she writes.

New IP model

Developed by the Open AIR project, a long-term partnership of IP experts and researchers, the majority of whom are Africa-based, the 12-week postgraduate course at the University of Cape Town known as “IP Law, Development and Innovation” has modules on innovation, development and intellectual property rights; globalisation; patents; copyright; communal trademarks; traditional knowledge; intellectual property rights and agriculture; and Intellectual Property Rights from the Publicly Financed Research and Development Act 2008.

According to Ncube, each module was informed by case studies undertaken during the second phase of the research project. Once the development of the model course is completed, an openly licensed course syllabus and the modules will be made accessible free of charge from the project website and other online platforms.

Each institution offering the course will determine the formative and summative evaluation of the course in accordance with its own rules and procedures. The decision about who presents the course will be made at institutional level.

Empirical research

“The primary contribution of the model course is its provision of modules that are informed by empirical research undertaken on the continent by scholars and researchers who have a strong understanding and experience of the African context,” writes Ncube.

Ncube says expertise gathered from the pilot will inform the final model course.

“The student and external examiner evaluations of the course delivered by University of Cape Town lecturers have been very positive,” she writes, and with more funds the case study researchers and book chapter authors will be invited to personally or virtually lead some of the seminars in the future.