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September 24, 2018

Entrepreneurs Must Respect Intellectual Property Rights

Reading Amani Craft’s blog post, you can be forgiven for quickly giving in to a knee-jerk reaction – what a horrid bitch this woman must be to go after a group of poor women, in the slums no less, trying to sell their beads:

 Under the headline ‘Who is Penny Winter and why is he bullying us?’, Amani Crafts wrote: ‘We are so upset today, we have received a letter from a British woman’s solicitor telling us we can't make African jewelry and beads made from paper anymore.

She has even threatened us with Gwyneth Paltrow, we did not even know what that was. It seems this woman’s company has claimed ownership of African and Kenyan crafts and beads and has demanded we destroy our stock. (…) We are very frightened but want to fight this bullying tactic, we are simply a group of women who are trying to make a better life for our children.

Kenya is 50 years old and it seems we are still under control of people wanting to make money on the backs of poor wananchi, this should have stopped, it is not fair.’

 You might, like I did, wonder how Penny Winter became a ‘he’, but still: what a horrid person he or she must be.

 That’s all very sad.

 It’s also not true.

 Thankfully the blog post actually links to the lawyer’s letter, which clarifies the whole story. Coulson Harney’s John Syekei did not ask the women’s group to stop making beads, or to destroy their stash of bead-based products, but very specifically asked them to stop copying and retailing his client’s ‘Kura Necklace in Bone’, of which he includes a photograph (and quite a funky necklace it is, too), and which his client, Penny Galore Ltd, had copyrighted.

There were also no threats with/through Gwyneth Paltrow, a silly idea in itself, merely a mention that her website had featured the necklace. At that point, the faux naiveté of the blog post really began to grate.

 So yes, I think there is probably some area of discussion of how much you can copyright a necklace design, but Amani Crafts lied about the legal action against them. And they copied a design.

 Now over to a whole different but similar story: I met my friend Roland a few years ago at a conference. We became buddies, and I had the pleasure of watching him grow his software testing company, Tezza Solutions, from nothing to a company with a footprint in four Africa countries.

When I’m asked about Kenya and the ‘Silicon Savannah’, I often refer to Tezza: certainly less written about than all those M-something start ups, but a start-up that grew from a baby tech company into what is now a proper SME. Roland is serious. Roland may also have discovered the secret of how not to sleep, but Roland is certainly serious.

 Still, while Roland has not yet brought in lawyers, he faced a similar situation as Penny Winter, except with his own people. Starting a company is no walk in the park, I think we all know that, and you expect things to go wrong.

But Roland just wrote a social media post expressing his frustration with his (now ex) employees and their business ethics: one who hacked and read his emails for six months. Another one who stole three laptops, and then later came back to ask for forgiveness –but had not quite overcome his sticky-finger habit (elsewhere, since Roland obviously did not give him any new work).

And right now, Roland is looking at a competitor company, Systech Ltd, who have hired three of his former employees. All three were people he had taken a chance on, and went to significant lengths to train them in what are very technical – and clearly quite in-demand ‑ skills.

People do move on, and Roland is fine with that. What he is less excited about is that his former employees violated their non-compete agreement.

What he is really, really not excited about at all is that they then went and stole Tezza’s entire website: from services offerings down to course descriptions – just stolen, word by word.

 Tezza’s saving grace is probably that stealing website content obviously does not enable you to actually provide such testing and training services, and anyone going to Systech Ltd may well find that they are given a substandard service.

I probably laugh as much as the next person about some upcountry Sheraton Hotel & Butchery, and I have certainly gotten over the Heltz cars in town (if not over their annoying habit of taking out snail-paced learners right in the rush hour to hold up everyone).

But while corruption in government is a daily subject of discussion, should not there also be a bit more of a public dialogue on ethics in business? And intellectual property rights? Would the tech industry react to such (and no doubt countless other) examples, or just collectively shrug their shoulders and look elsewhere?

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