Tim Lince

An IP expert in Nigeria has told World Trademark Review that a recent trademark infringement lawsuit launched by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) could “spark a wave of IP commercialisation”, and has called for the country to join the African IP Organisation (OAPI). A spokesperson for the latter has told us that the organisation is not currently in talks with Nigeria, but that the door is open for discussions.

In recent court filings, the NNPC filed legal action against Natural Network Petroleum and Gas Company Limited (NNPG) and two others parties over alleged trademark infringement. The company claims the brand design of NNPG is confusingly similar to its NNPC registered mark, and is demanding N15 million ($7,500) damages for infringement and passing off.

Considering the lawsuit, Olufola Wusu, an IP lawyer for Megathos Law Practice in Lagos, argues it demonstrates that “the NNPC is keen on taking the lead in safeguarding IP in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria”, adding: “It could increase trademark awareness among those companies in the oil and gas sector, many of which have overlooked the power and value of branding as many executives may not appreciate how a good brand can work to create economic value. There is, thus, a high probability that if the oil and gas industry take its IP more seriously, it may very well spark a wave of IP commercialisation (including in trademarks) across Nigeria generally.”

To create that spark, Wusu suggests the Nigerian government - which has launched a project to reform the country’s copyright regime in recent years - should pursue an agenda to improve the country’s trademark system. This should include, he argues, a focus on internationalisation: “Nigeria doesn't belong to the regional registration systems that apply in Africa - OAPI and ARIPO - and nor does it belong to the Madrid System. Joining all of those would be steps in the right direction. Right now, though, the National Assembly in Nigeria is still trying to settle down. By the time that happens, we are sure to see some long-awaited reforms.”

Building on the suggestion that Nigeria should join OAPI, Wusu says that, for brand owners, it would reduce the cost of IP protection because it would require just one application to receive protection in a range of countries across Africa. This, in turn, should reduce the cost of doing business in Nigeria, making it a more attractive country to investors. He adds: “Some people believe - rightly or wrongly - that joining OAPI may lead to a reduction in the level of contentious and non-contentious IP work available to firms in Nigeria. This may be a question of perception, as the gains of being part of a global IP movement may be more beneficial than the perceived losses in the long run.”

Maurice Batanga, OAPI’s director of legal affairs and cooperation, confirmed to World Trademark Review that the organisation is not currently in talks with Nigeria but would welcome a dialogue, adding: “OAPI is open to receive any African country that complies with the Bangui Agreement. If a country decides to join, they will benefit from the services rendered by OAPI, but would also have to stop its national system of granting trademarks. In sum, it is for Nigeria to decide to accede to OAPI.”

The last country to become a member state of OAPI was the Union of the Comoros in 2013. Batanga reveals, however, that an OAPI delegation is planning to visit Cape Verde and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both of these nations, he says, “may join OAPI in the future”.

With OAPI looking to expand and WIPO continuing its project to “digitise Africa’s trademark applications”, activity on the continent is stepping up. If Nigeria, the biggest country in Africa by population, does join these continent

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