FOR a very long time, innovation and creativity endowed with intellectual property rights (IPRs)—patents, trademarks, geographical indications (GI), industrial designs, copyrights, etc.—have been powering change through ownership, reward and compensation. New products or new ways of doing things along with new forms of original artistic expressions are the result of such innovation and creativity.
IPRs recognise the innovation and creativity of individuals who use their intellect and risk their labour, time and money in creative endeavours, and empower them with exclusivity and ownership. Thus IPRs encourage individuals to create and innovate and provide a mechanism of compensation in cases of misappropriation.
Bangladeshi women aren't lagging behind in terms of innovation. Their presence is visible in laboratories, businesses, small and medium enterprises, weaving, manufacturing, fashion design, sculpture, dance, music, art, films, and in other literary and artistic works, as well as in traditional knowledge goods and cultural expressions, folklores, etc. However, their unique contributions have not been adequately recognised in Bangladesh. The need to recognise the intellectual contribution of women and using it as a means to power change is the dominant theme in this year's World Intellectual Property Day through celebrating the “brilliance, ingenuity, curiosity and courage of women who are driving change in our world and shaping our common future.”
Bangladeshi women are entrepreneurs in many fields such as fashion design (Bibi Russel), running fashion houses and boutique shops, and are also operating social media based e-commerce businesses. All of their works qualify for IPRs—design, trademark, copyright, etc. Women are also taking up leadership roles in businesses. The value of their reputation and goodwill can be protected by trademark. The unique features of their businesses and business strategies (for example, the success strategy of Sonia Bashir Kabir, CEO of Microsoft Bangladesh) can also be protected by trade secrets. Similarly, Bangladeshi women's innovation in food recipes (Siddika Kabir for example) can be protected under the trade-secret regime in addition to patents.
In science and technology, Bangladeshi women have also marched forward. One such woman is Professor Haseena Khan who is famous for jute genome decoding. Then there is Professor Zeba Islam Seraj who is known for her research in developing salt-tolerant rice varieties suitable for growth in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. Their contributions can be protected by patents. However, this is not without its complexities. One of the issues is regarding the ownership of patents since in the absence of contracts/mandatory legal provisions for joint ownership, the appointing institution can claim patents for paying the innovator for her work. Also, in the case of value addition to an existing technology, a mechanism like petty patent or utility patent can ensure recognition to women for their innovation and creativity.
In the music industry, many female singers (for example, Runa Laila) have made their names in the contemporary music world. Their contributions deserve copyright and royalty. However, in the absence of collective management organisations (CMOs) or pro forma contracts/mandatory legal provisions, there is a problem with regard to royalty. For example, when a singer is given a lump sum for covering a particular song, she is usually deprived of all other subsequent benefits for further use of the song, e.g. in ringtones or reselling.
In literature, Bangladeshi women have progressed much further. For example, Selina Hossain, Tahmima Anam, Monika Ali, etc., are very famous around the world for their contributions to the field of literature. Their writings are copyright protected and they continue to receive rents for their creative works.
In a world of free-market economy, the ingenuity of Bangladeshi women in producing numerous handicrafts has received pertinent attention. They are being commercially utilised by businesses like BRAC Aarong through the fair trade regime. However, women's intellectual products can be protected by way of patents, trademarks, copyrights, designs, GIs and farmers' rights regime. For example, women weaving nakshikantha can get their products registered under the GI regime. Under the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act 2013, GIs can effectively be used for the protection of traditional knowledge as they can be held as long as the collective tradition is maintained and do not confer monopoly rights over the information. GIs are effective in augmenting the commercial value of natural, traditional and craft products if their attributes can be traced to their particular geographical origin.
Bangladeshi women can also claim IPRs in culinary goods. Aromatic rice varieties like kalijira and kataribhog have been used by Bangladeshi women for cooking for the longest time. Also, the knowledge of making ghee from cow milk belongs to women. This can be protected under the traditional knowledge regime. Under the Trademarks Act, 2009 indigenous and local communities can gain economically from their traditional knowledge and also protect it from undesirable commercial use by outsiders. All manufactured goods and services offered by craftsmen, manufacturers, traders of local and indigenous communities or by their representative bodies can be differentiated from one another by the use of trademarks.
Women's contribution in other sectors, e.g. small and medium enterprises, through pottery, handicrafts, and food industries can also be recognised and protected by IPRs. Also, under the Patents and Designs Act, 1911, original designs and traditional appearances of handicrafts from a vertical perspective can be considered as industrial designs. Moreover, women in coastal areas use traditional knowledge in drying fish, shrimp and other fishery products which are sold at home and abroad. Women can also make profits from traditional cultural expressions, e.g. Bhatiali, Baul, Marfati, Murshidi, etc.
To power change through innovation and creativity and bring Bangladeshi women to the forefront, recognition and ownership of their IPRs—patent, design, trademark, GI, copyright, utility patent or trade secret—are required. However, due to some policy gaps, especially the absence of laws relating to unfair competition, innovation, utility patent, traditional knowledge, trade secrets, etc., improper implementation of existing laws, lack of awareness of IPRs, and non-existence of CMOs to collect and distribute royalties for IPRs, vested interest groups are capitalising on the ingenuity of women.
Proper IPR laws and policies, their enforcement, and, above all, awareness-building can help Bangladeshi women become real game-changers.
Professor Dr Mohammad Towhidul Islam teaches intellectual property law at the Department of Law, University of Dhaka.