This article looks at intellectual property (IP) law in Liberia, including its history, its challenges and the current state of IP in the country.
Since the early part of the 19th century, the Liberian government has recognized IP rights as a medium of economic growth and a means of diversifying the economy.
The first recognition came in 1911 when the government of Liberia enacted the first copyright law (titled ‘An Act Relating to Copyright’). Eighty-six years later, in 1997, the government adopted the new Copyright Act and, in 2003, an Industrial Property Act.
However, both of these laws suffered significant setbacks due to ambitious clauses that were unclear and inconsistent with the socio-economic in Liberia.
Fast forward to 2016 and, with the government recognizing the challenges with existing IP law, officials adopted a new act that repealed both the Copyright Act of 1997 and the Industrial Property Act of 2003. The new act amalgamated two old offices into one, establishing the Liberia Intellectual Property Office (LIPO).
After its creation, LIPO became a semi-autonomous government agency comprising a central administrative arm with two distinct departments. It also features a separate leadership and is charged with the mandate, under the authority of policy direction of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, to protect the IP rights of creators in and outside Liberia.
The new Liberia Intellectual Property Act
Unlike the old laws, the 2016 Intellectual Property Act called for the filing of international applications under the Madrid Protocol and the Swakopmund Protocol on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Folklore within the framework of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO).
The new act mandated LIPO to ensure that foreign nationals’ copyrighted works enjoy the same privileges given to Liberian IP rights holders, and that these should be administered in line with international IP conventions or treaties of which Liberia is a signatory.
Under the new act, the government of Liberia granted protection to copyrighted material including, but not limited to, musical works, sound recordings, literary works, artistic works, dramatic works, as well as works created by individuals, corporations, the government and international bodies.
For a creator to own IP rights in Liberia, he/she has to be Liberian, a resident of Liberia, or the owner of a work published for the first time in Liberia. For foreign creators, the work has to be registered not less than 30 days from the date of production.
The act also provides room for fair use, which permits the unlicensed use of copyrighted material in specific circumstances, such as parody, satire, criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research. However, for copyrighted material to qualify or meet the conditions of fair use, the act requires the following reproduction conditions to be met: private reproduction meant for personal use, temporary reproduction, reproduction for teaching, reproduction for library use or aurally impaired persons, and short-lived recordings by broadcasters.
Interestingly, the act does not provide protection for intangible ideas, procedures, methods of operation, mathematical concepts, principles, or mere data. Other copyright-exempt documents include any official legislative, judicial or administrative communication, including the laws of Liberia; and any official translation, news of the day, political speeches and speeches delivered in legal proceedings.
Furthermore, the act protects the moral and economic rights of literary or musical authors for their lifetime and 50 years after their death. It also mandates that the economic and moral rights of the author can be transferred to another person in the author’s will. In the case of joint authorship, the law requires that the last surviving author inherit the economic and moral rights of the said work until his/her death.
On the issue of piracy and IP infringement, the 2016 law calls for a fine of $1 500 to $2 500 and one to two years’ imprisonment for first- and second-time offenders.
Challenges with the 2016 Intellectual Property Act
Although Liberia’s IP Act is ostensibly up to date, there still exist a few loopholes, such as the issue of the applicability of international IP treaties, such as the Banjul Protocol. In addition, there is a provision in the act that exempts an employee of LIPO from being liable in civil or criminal proceedings regarding any action taken while performing his/her duties, even if there is a sign of conflict of interest.
The act does not make provision for the establishment of a collection society – a non-profit entity charged with the responsibility of collecting and distributing royalties and other remuneration on behalf of artist. Despite this, in 2019, LIPO and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry signed an administrative regulation for the establishment of the Copyright Society of Liberia (COSOL).
The current state of copyright in Liberia
While Liberia’s IP law can be regarded as one of the most modern in West Africa, its implementation has been far from ideal. This, in part, has resulted in a booming black market for musical works in the country. In fact, since the introduction of the IP Act in 2016, not a single case of piracy or infringement has been taken to court by LIPO.
There may be cause for cautious optimism, however. In February 2019, the director-general of LIPO, P Adelyn Cooper, made an impassioned plea to artists and said that her team would do more to “stop piracy”, while the President of the Musicians Union of Liberia (MULIB), Sammy Gray Gboguy, said piracy and the protection of IP were key priority areas for the union.
Robin L.C.Dopoe, Jr. is a junior editor at the Daily Observer newspaper and an entertainment journalist.
Note: This article was originally published by Music in Africa, a blog that is the largest resource for information and exchange in and for the African music sector.