A case for Intellectual Property Rights in the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things refers to the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. A common example of an Internet of Things is an arrangement of smart lightening, smart speakers as well as smart doorbells that all communicate with each other in order to perform functions automatically with little or no human effort. It is called the internet of things because it has the ability transfer data over a network with zero human input. An Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem consists of web enabled smart devices that use embedded processors, send and act on the data they acquire from their environments. Now, this entire process involves a cluster of intellectual properties that span from the devices and their designs to the computing software embedded in them. IoT has been rightly described as the next step in the evolution of the internet, well, it probably also follows to describe it as the next step in development of intellectual property law, considering the complexities and challenges it brings to intellectual property as we know it today.
The IoT industry is still very much in the early phase, more so in Nigeria. And just like every budding industry that shows promise, IoT attracts quite a number of patent applications from companies trying to secure a cut in the industry and this causes a problem. You see, in order to successfully operate with other systems, IoT devices from different manufacturers would have to be able to work together using standardized technology (interoperability). With several competitors trying to patent this technology, there is bound to be clash of patents making things quite messy and most likely hampering the growth of IoT. As such, the need to maintain cohabitation between Intellectual Property rights Protection and interoperability is a major concern for the IoT industry.
Furthermore, IoT devices as a matter of necessity must capture data in order to carry out their functions, and this data is often enormous and managed by databases. The organizational structure of these databases can typically be protected through copyright in Nigeria, to the extent that they are original. The content of the database can also be protected through the database sui generis right awarded to the database maker (that is, the person who shows that there has been qualitatively and/or quantitatively a substantial investment in either the obtaining verification or presentation of the content). The data sui generis right is however not recognized in Nigeria and therefore cannot be enjoyed.
The software in an IoT device is also an object of intellectual property protection and this can be done through copyrights; copyright here protects the exact codes used in making a software program to ensure that they are not imitated. However, copyright is a narrow protection in terms of software as it will not suffice as sufficient protection if an entirely different code is used to make a software that performs the exact same function the protected software was designed to perform. As such, in some cases, a software patent might be considered a better option as it protects the utility of the said software.
In addition, if anything has been learnt from the smartphone industry, it is the importance of design protection. Moving away from the functionality of IoT devices, their appearances are also intellectual properties of great importance to their various brands. Thus, the overall physical appearances of these devices can be protected through the use of design patents.
Finally, technology keeps developing at a fast pace and in order to keep up, intellectual property laws must be flexible enough to match this development. It is thus necessary that IP law in Nigeria is constantly reviewed in order to avoid the inapplicability of laws to developing IP issues as can be seen in the case of the IoT industry.
Written by: Victor Fabarebo (Research team)