Empowering Women Entrepreneurs Through Intellectual Property Protection

April 2, 2019

Over the last few years, the problems that women in Kosovo face in realizing their property and inheritance rights have rightfully received considerable attention from both the local and the international community. Among the main arguments presented by various organizations supporting women's property and inheritance rights is the positive impact their protection would have on women’s economic empowerment. On the other hand, protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights has not received as much attention even though it can also be an important factor affecting female entrepreneurial success. Intellectual property (IP) is not physical in nature but is often the most valuable asset of a company because it gives the creator an exclusive right over the use of his or her creation for a certain period of time.

The purpose of IP rights is to encourage and develop innovation and creativity, which in turn helps improve the quality of our lives.When most people think of IP, inventions in various fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics come to mind, but IP goes far beyond patented inventions and includes other types of exclusive rights such as trademarks, copyrights, geographical indications, industrial designs, so-called traditional knowledge, to mention only a few. 

The ways in which IP protection affects women empowerment has been discussed and analyzed by various organizations around the world. Although history recognizes important, world-changing inventions in which women played a major role, various studies show that women do not use the IP system as much as men. In order to inform women about the opportunities that the IP system provides for protection of works of creative or intellectual effort and to show appreciation and gratitude to women who have influenced innovation, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) chose a theme "Powering change: Women in innovation and creativity” for the World IP Day 2018.

Still, to what extent do female business owners in Kosovo know about IP protection and the opportunities offered by the IP system? Unfortunately, many small businesses do not pay much attention to IP protection, even though timely identification and protection of intellectual property created in the course of business activities can increase the profits.From my professional experience, business owners in Kosovo usually show interest in protecting their IP only after finding out that their rights have been infringed, which is usually too late. Therefore, the empowerment lies above all in assisting women in protecting the IP they may have already created but are not aware of it.

According to a research conducted by the Riinvest Institute, in Kosovo women-owned or women-run businesses can mostly be found in the trade and service sectors, followed by firms involved in textile, food, vegetable and sweets production. Although creation of IP rights reaches its highest potential within the science and technology-related industries, the sectors in which the highest number of women-owned businesses are active can also lead to creations of the mind with commercial value, able to generate revenues and incomes. While writing this article, for instance, the Kosovo Apparel Convention organized by the Kosovo Apparel Marketing Association was held in Prishtina. The apparel industry in Kosovo mostly consists of textile, clothing and leather companies and is predominantly owned by women. All these products could be subject to IP protection and there is no doubt that women entrepreneurs can use IP tools to increase their profits.

The first type of an IP right that can be taken advantage of by women entrepreneurs in the apparel industry would be an industrial design right, which constitutes the ornamental or aesthetic aspect of a product. The industrial design law in Kosovo protects the design, defined as the outer appearance of the whole or of a part of product resulting from the features, shape, form, color, lines, contours, texture or materials of the product itself or its ornaments – if it is new and has individual character. An industrial design needs to be registered in order to be protected and the competent local institution is the Kosovo Industrial Property Agency. The holder of an industrial design has the exclusive right to use the registered design and prevent third parties from its unauthorized use. There are, however, arguments that using industrial design law to protect products in the apparel industry is not the wisest option because products in this industry, be it ready-to-wear clothes or footwear, are mainly seasonal. 

Copyright law provisions can also be used by companies in the apparel sector, particularly those with seasonal production lines. Provided that the design is original, the designer gets an automatic protection and does not need to bother with the administrative registration procedure. Certain designs, if original and new, may be protected cumulatively by both the Law on Industrial Design and the Law on Copyright. 

Getting a trademark registration would also be an important option to consider, because trademarking the brand, that is producing, advertising, selling and exporting apparel products under their own distinctive trademark will certainly help the products compete in the market and stand out. A trademark can be a word, slogan, image, symbol, design or a combination of any of these that represent a product and help identify and distinguish a product from other similar products at home and abroad. It is important not to use somebody else’s trademark or elements thereof as this would certainly be a barrier when exporting the goods.

Patents may not be as applicable in the apparel industry as industrial designs and trademarks, but if a new process or a new type of material is used in the production of apparel, the Law on Patents may come into play. There are a number of patents in the apparel industry worldwide, a typical example being waterproof footwear. Therefore, entrepreneurs should also be aware of the possibilities that the Law on Patents offers to them and when to seek patent protection.

As soon as new entrepreneurs start taking steps to establish a business or implement a product idea, such as obtaining licenses and securing production, it’s a good idea to identify whether their products or services are protectable by trademark, industrial design, copyright, patent, or other forms of IP rights. Basic understanding of various IP types and procedures and awareness about the differences will help women entrepreneurs protect their IP correctly. Timely protection is crucial – using the IP system to protect a product that is already being copied can turn out to be too complicated and costly. In some cases bringing an enforcement action will not even be possible if the IP is not registered. 

Also, one should not think of owning IP rights as an expenditure but as one of business's most important assets. It is true that some cash should be spent for the registration and maintenance of an IP right, but businesses with IP portfolios are more likely to receive funding and investment capital – IP ownership assures a level of exclusivity for the investor, if the product proves to be successful. Foreign investors will surely take into account whether a particular product or service is protected by IP rights when assessing investment possibilities.

Article by Kujtesa Nezaj-Shehu, SDP KOSOVË Head of Office and Attorney at Law, first published in Issue 29 of Horizon magazine published by AmCham Kosovo in March 2019