Whose intellectual property is it anyway?

The story of Ubuntu Baba is a warning and an encouragement for small businesses. Read about the real world of intellectual property.
Shannon McLaughlin in the Ubuntu Baba factory.

Shannon McLaughlin is a mom, web designer, blogger and founder of Ubuntu Baba (Yoco merchant #12 119), a proudly South African manufacturer of baby carriers.

Her baby carrier design was created out of a simple need. Being a new mom, she soon realised that the best way to go places and do simple things like grocery shopping was much easier when carrying her baby as close to her as possible. Shannon started out with a stretchy wrap but her baby quickly outgrew it. Even after trying a variety of carriers, nothing matched the comfort of the wrap. She’d spotted a gap in the market: as a mum balancing the demands of work with the needs of a new baby, she wanted a baby carrier that was easy to use, breathable and comfortable.

Luckily Shannon’s dad, Paul, had over 30 years’ experience in manufacturing backpacks, so they put their heads together and after three months on the cutting table, Ubuntu Baba was born.

My goal was to create an easy to use, breathable and comfortable carrier that could be used from the newborn days onwards.

Today, Shannon has created more than a baby carrier. Mothers across the country use her platforms to share their knowledge and experiences with other moms. She has a legion of fans who use and love her product – just ask the parents who’ve been UbuntuBaba’d! The business also employs 10 people – so buying an Ubuntu Baba carrier feels good in more ways than one.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

But late last year, the unthinkable happened. A friend of Shannon’s spotted a baby carrier that was identical to her design in a major retailer’s online store. Not only were the pattern and the colours a blatant copy – the products were even named ‘Stage 1’ and ‘Stage 2’.

This was another apparent case of a retail giant exploiting local intellectual property and missing an incredible opportunity to develop small business in South Africa by identifying and developing local manufacturers.

Shannon experienced what many founders regularly do, seeing a large corporate ‘take inspiration’ from their designs or products. Unfortunately though, outside of long, expensive legal battles, there’s not much that can be done about it.

Inside the factory at Ubuntu Baba.

But they were facing one tough mama…

Shannon’s experience was soul destroying. As any small business owner knows, there’s a lot of money, blood, sweat and tears invested into a new business. Not only was the retailer’s design ‘strikingly similar’ but their product was selling for about a third of the Ubuntu Baba price.

So, with all the grit of a small business owner and her strong sense of morals and ethics, Shannon decided to take on the retail giant. Backed up by her tribe of fierce mamas and smart use of social media, Shannon’s story made national headlines. The public outcry and media coverage piled the pressure onto the retailer, who subsequently withdrew their baby carriers and are now in negotiations with Shannon to settle the matter.

It’s a classic David vs Goliath story with some big lessons:

  • Learn as much as you can about your rights
  • Get advice on how to protect your rights
  • Brush up on how to use social media effectively
  • If you have an idea that’s worth protecting, register your design within six months of creating it (while it may cost some money upfront it will give you peace of mind in the long run).
Shannon McLaughlin of Ubuntu Baba.

What about the law?

Protecting your intellectual property is a journey and the steps differ depending on the business and industry you’re working in. In 2019 we have an easy flow of content and a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. IP protection won’t happen by accident, you need to put in the effort. Like with most things in business, it’s easier to avoid the problem than fix it once it happens.

We spoke to Eitan Stern from Legalese to get his opinion on the practical steps you can take to protect your IP. Here are his suggestions:

  1. It’s crucial to identify your intellectual property to understand where the value in your business lies. Is it in the product, brand, network or the resources? Only once you understand your company’s value can you construct a strategy to protect it.
  2. One thing a small business can do is to transfer the value in their IP from the products they create to their brand, which is easier to protect. Your designs may change over time, while your brand represents consumer trust and goodwill in any of your products.
  3. Formal protections – such as design, trademark or patent registrations are costly and sometimes out of reach of small businesses. However if you can afford them or if your intellectual property is valuable enough, then it’s important to spend to protect your IP formally.

There are some quick and easy steps you can take to protect your IP:

  • If you have a brand name, register the URLs and social media handles. This will prevent others from using the same names, as that’s usually the first port of call when deciding on a brand name.
  • You can use contracts to protect IP from those you’re working with – make it clear to staff, suppliers, contractors and clients who owns the IP. If you can’t afford a full contract, write it up yourself in plain English and have it signed.
  • Then don’t put your IP in places where it can be stolen. If you have a million Rand idea, keep it to yourself. If you sell photographs for a living, don’t put them on the internet. If you don’t want your methodologies copied, don’t share them!
Take a closer look at the people who make Ubuntu Baba in our photo story, The Value of Ubuntu, here and check out Shannon’s blog to see how the story unfolded in real time.
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