Tim Lince

The African Intellectual Property Organisation (OAPI) has confirmed to World Trademark Review that its director general, Paulin Edou Edou, will be leaving at the end of July, with his successor beginning in August. This comes as the collective formed to challenge OAPI’s accession to the Madrid Protocol disbands due to a fear of being banned from IP practice, although a former member reveals that it may regroup later in the year.

It is understood that director general Edou Edou, who has been in the position at OAPI since August 2007, was originally appointed for a five-year term. His mandate was renewed for a second five-year term in 2012, which expires on July 31. A new director general has already been chosen in Denis Loukou Bohoussou, the current director general of the Ivory Coast’s IP Office. He begins his five-year term from August 1, although that mandate may be extended, just once, in 2022. There are further changes, with Maurice Batanga, director of legal affairs and cooperation at OAPI, telling World Trademark Review that both the deputy director general and the financial controller – both appointed at the same time as Edou Edou – will also be leaving at the end of July.

New leadership could mean a change in direction at OAPI, Batanga states, but that will become clearer when the new director general begins his term. “The application file for the post of OAPI director general contains a memorandum presenting the mode of management and innovations that the candidate intends to apply,” he notes. “I don't know yet the contents of the memorandum, since the process of choosing and appointing the new DG was conducted out of the Secretariat. But when he arrives, he will surely propose a working plan for his mandate. So whether things will continue down the path that Mr Edou Edou has set or if things will change under his leadership will be known in due time.”

The staff overhaul means it is currently “a period of transition” for OAPI, one representative in the region told us. But one thing that remains fairly consistent is uncertainty around OAPI’s implementation of the Madrid Protocol. “In general, we still advise clients to use the national trademark route if they want protection in the OAPI jurisdiction,” the represenative tells us. “It is my understanding that OAPI has not received any more total applications since joining Madrid, when combining national and international applications, so I think the number of applications via Madrid is very, very small."

But according to Batanga, the Madrid System “is working”. To demonstrate that, he revealed that in 2015, 1,064 international trademark applications designated OAPI. From January to November 1 2016 a further 1,517 international applications were received. In total, up to the last date, 799 of those international applications have been examined, accepted and published online in the OAPI Official Gazette. “We have also already received some opposition cases to OAPI designations,” he went on. “Furthermore, WIPO continues to support us in ensuring the effective implementation of the Madrid Protocol.”

One group that has been vocal in its opposition to the Madrid System in the region is the ‘Collectif des Conseils en propriété industrielle’ (‘Collective of Industrial Property Counsel’). Formed in the wake of OAPI’s accession to the Madrid Protocol, the group of IP lawyers have engaged in a public war of words over what it alleges is an illegal move, arguing that OAPI, as an international organisation, does not have the mandate to ratify a treaty on behalf of member states. To raise awareness of this claim, the collective wrote letters to IP associations laying out  its arguments, and vowed to take international trademarks that designate OAPI to court to prove their unenforceability. Things escalated in April 2015 when OAPI launched an investigation to identify members of the collective and quell the protest. In total, three members of the collective, former Jing and Partners lawyer Constantin Ondoa and former Cabinet ISIS attorneys Christian Dudieu Djomga and Judith Samantha Tchimmoe Fezeu, were dismissed from their law firms on the basis of their opposition to OAPI’s accession.

Things have been relatively quiet for the past 12 months. It is understood that, due to a fear of further suspensions, the collective has effectively gone into hiding. A former member of the collective, who preferred not to be named, explained: “We have disbanded due to the fact that Mr Edou Edou and Mr Batanga held a meeting with OAPI agents to inform them that any person suspected to be member of the collective will be suspended and banned as an OAPI agent. However, the collective may form again when OAPI’s new director general takes charge in August, after Mr Edou Edou leaves.”

For his part, Batanga confirms that account, and gave his side as such: “We received a list of eight people who met and decided to take actions against the accession of OAPI to the Madrid Protocol. The venue of those meetings was the office of Cabinet ISIS, and these people came from three registered IP law firms,” he recalls. “The general manager of one of them said that his firm was not involved and his collaborators who took part to that struggle were personally responsible for their action. Constantin Ondoa, who signed all the documents on behalf of the collective, was one of his staff. He subsequently fired him. Furthermore, it may be that some IP lawyers who are not OAPI registered IP agents, or some registered agents or their partners, gave some money to help the collective to carry out their activities.”

So it appears disruption between OAPI and anti-Madrid agents has been curbed for the time being – but tensions still simmer between the two parties and hostilities may be resumed at a later date.

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