Syria’s Elias Brimo refused to accept half a million Qatari Riyals for a solar-powered boat he invented in 1984 while working in Qatar as an electrician at a petrochemical plant.
He refused to sell his invention because he wanted to invest in it when he returns to his home country.
But Brimo has not been able to fulfil his wish due to cash shortages, failure to find a local sponsor, and lack of legal protection.
He is not the only inventor whose invention has not won patronage or interest.
According to a questionnaire of 100 Syrian inventors, who are members of the 350-strong Association of Syrian Inventors, 54% of them said they have not been able to invest in their inventions due to lack of funds and the absence of a partner willing to adopt their work. The Association does not include all Syrian inventors. But its includes many who have registered their patent.
Years later, Brimo registered five patents related to water distillation, including a device in 1990 that is suitable for easing the existing energy and water crisis. He continued with his inventions at his own expense, like 46% of the investors surveyed in the sample conducted for the purpose of this investigative report.
One of his inventions was stolen, but he did not go to court because he thought it would be useless. Similar to the 35% of the sampled inventors who had their inventions either stolen or copied.23% of them did not litigate because in their eyes litigation costs money and they have no time to spend.
Today,Elias Brimo, 64, has given up on pursuing inventions and is busy with economic research. He describes the market as “tightly sealed”. To enter it, you need a “deluge of propaganda, advertising, and funding.”
When Usama Bahbouh, a mechanical engineer, considered investing in his invention named “the vehicle register” – a device that records car speeds, he did not know what awaited him.
He went to the Ministry of Transport, but after months of trekking between three of its directorates: transport, communications and research, the ministry’s reply was a simple “no”.
The ministry told Bahbouh his invention was similar to the “tachograph”, or black box, and for the ministry to accredit it, he must obtain a license to manufacture it locally.
Relying on scant personal savings, Bahbouh, a public employee, took the risk of building a prototype, which he tested on several cars. However, the Ministry rejected his invention and imported a similar black box to help control drivers who break the speed limits on Syrian roads. This occurred after approving seven appliances made by Turkish, Emirati and German firms.
Director of Research at the Ministry of Transport, Dr. Mahmoud Al-Haffar, said that the Ministry had prepared a booklet of technical conditions used to help policemen ease the traffic situation in Syria. Mr. Bahbouh’s device did not conform with both the technical conditions and the goals for employing the tachograph.
Dr. Al-Haffar said the Ministry’s specifications were precise: the data must be Arabic, could be saved for up to 30 days, and allows traffic police to digitally register traffic violations.
He said that this was the basis which led the Ministry not to accept Bahbouh’s invention, even though it had had approved seven other appliances from other international firms.
According to Bahbouh’s calculations, his device would have been sold just under SLL 5,000 ($100) a fraction of the cost of the imported machine, thus reducing the cost shouldered by the driver, encouraging local skills and creating a possibility for export.
Half a million vehicles will now have to install the imported appliance at an average cost of SLL 25,000 ($500), thus bringing the total cost to SLL 1,250,000,000. Half of the total cost would go to the exporter.
However, Dr. Al-Haffar said that the Ministry had installed 44,000 appliances up to October 2008, at an average cost of SLL 15,000 each.
Inventor Issa Badeen has spent his time searching for funding, but when he was able to find a sponsor, the protection of his patent had expired because he had not paid SLL 250 every year to the Department of Patent Protection.
According to lawyer Mohammad Aqeel, many inventors have been subjected to the loss of their patents because they forgot to settle the annual fee which allows the inventor to claim his patent in line with the law issued in 1947. Moreover, the Department does not notify owners of patents whose names have been taken off the list for their failure to renew the annual subscription fee.
The Association of Syrian Inventors was created in 2002, but it had carried out its duties for over 20 years under the name: Interim Committee for Inventors. The Association protects the interests of its members and promotes their inventions. It works under the authority of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour which allocates an annual sum of SLL 25,000 to support inventors. It has 350 active and associate members as well as honorary ones.
This official donation and the members’ annual fees yield an income of SLL 40,000 a year, but that is not even enough to cover running costs like electricity and water, says its president, Dr. Mohammad Wardeh.
Despite the profitability of investment in the field of inventions, only 50 inventors obtain patents every year, mostly individuals, not companies. The duties of Syrian public universities are limited to teaching, with a tiny margin of funds allocated for scientific research — a drop in the ocean compared to the money provided by universities in industrialized countries.In a study entitled “Scientific Research and The Management of Technology: An Urgent Necessity of the Arab World,” Mr. Samer Al-Rifa’i, Secretary of The Arab College for Science and Technology, said that Arab countries spend only 0.02-0.03% of their gross national product on scientific research. In Syria, such allocations do not exceed 0.02% of the GNP, while in other states, it stands at 0.01%.
Government spending forms 89% of the total expenditure for research, the rest comes from the private sector (3%) and (8%) from international assistance and cooperation funds. In South Korea, for example, the equation is reversed, with 74% of the total expenditure on study and research funded by the private industries.
According to the same study, patents serve as indicators in monitoring research and development activities. But they do not show the volume and importance of broader invention activities, including the development of a product, a system or a service.
According to the Arab Human Development Report of 2003, the number of patents registered in the United States from Arab and foreign countries between 1980 and 2000 stood as follows: Yemen: 2 patents; Syria: 10; Jordan: 15; Egypt: 77, Saudi Arabia: 171. South Korea, on the other hand, had registered 16,328 patents in the same period.
Dr. Mustafa Abdallah Al-Kafri, former Director of the Investment Commission, does not deny the importance of investing in intellects, education, and training, which he says brings “the highest return”. But the Commission is focusing more on how to attract local and foreign investors.
The Industrial Bank offers loans of up to SLL 1 million to finance inventors. But the Deputy Manager of the Bank, Qassem Zeitoun, admits that the sum is not sufficient for rent, and repayment conditions are discouraging. In addition, guarantees and securities demanded by the bank, such as the industrial or commercial registration license, prevent the inventor from benefiting from the loan.
Engineer Yousef Marsheh, Director of Finance and Investment at the Bank, said that only one loan had been granted over the past few years, and the beneficiary had been referred to court for deferring the repayment.
The Department of Patents, also known as the Al-Basel Centre for Creativity and Invention, was established in 2002. It tests inventions for their originality and offers all information that may assist the inventor in his work, for free. The Centre’s Director, Jamil As’ad, says the institution is promoting 5,500 registered Syrian patents through its website.
Individuals are the ones behind 99% of Syrian inventions, according to Yaser Sa’dah, Deputy Director of the Protection of Commercial and Industrial Property, who is responsible for issuing patents at the Ministry of Economy and Trade.
But he stated 60% of them neither follow-up on procedures to acquire the patents, nor complete the payment of annual fees of SLL 250 either because they lack funds or feel the process is futile.
He adds that the Protection Law number 47 of 1947 is obsolete, and does not conform to the needs of today’s technical development in the modern world. This law registers a patent on the basis of technical testing. A new draft law for patents has been sent to all concerned parties for comments before it is forwarded to the Prime Ministry. From there, it will go to parliament for approval.
Lawyer Aqeel has stated that the draft law has retained the right to ask for an annual invention fee if the invention had been registered even if it had not received the right to become a patent.
In the old law, the office had to issue the patent within a week under a loose process which contained many legal shortcomings, but the draft law set the period at two years – quite lengthy in today’s fast tracking world, he said.
The questionnaire randomly distributed to 100 of the 350 members of the Association for Syrian Inventors showed that 46% of them invested in their own inventions, 54% of them said they could not invest in their inventions because they lacked the required funds.
Those inventors who were unable invest in their products emphasized that they had suffered great financial losses, between thousands to millions of Syrian Lire. As for the scientific loss, it manifested itself in depriving humanity of the use of these inventions. The questionnaire also showed that 37 out of 46 inventors who were able to invest their products did so at their own expense. They were mainly industrialists or businessmen who developed their inventions in the course of their work.
Five of the nine other inventors received private investment funding. These included Engineer Haitham Alaya for an accounting programme and Arabising a computer programme; Inventor Muaffaq Sandeh, for inventing a weight reduction mixture made from coffee and herbs; Inventor Ibrahim Mufles for inventing an air conditioning system for vehicles that operates without having to rely on the engine, Inventor Mohammad Khabbaz who designed a system for vehicle parts for use in workshops and factories, and inventor Ali Al-Dseimani who invented a project to spray towers with water, using special sensors.
The private sector patronized the four other inventors.
38 out of the 46 inventors who invested in their patents said they had faced many obstacles, most important of which was the risk of testing with no funding. One inventor who paid SLL 700,000 ($14,000) to manufacture a prototype of his invention, said he lost another SLL 250,000 in testing it. In the meantime, someone else copied his invention and started selling it outside Syria, with no benefit to him.
The legal part of the questionnaire also shows that 35% of the inventors had their designs stolen or pirated and that the thieves had invested in full sight of the inventor 31 of the inventions. 23 of them did not resort to the law, for various reasons ranging from their belief in the futility of such action, to lack of funds and the lengthy time needed to issue the final verdict. By the time they won their cases, the perpetrator would have already done his deed, they said. Those who did resort to the law said they had faced many difficulties, such as procrastination due to the routine procedure. Alaya spent seven years in court suing a person who copied his machine programming invention. The case ended with partial, but non-deterring court decision, as the thief was only fined a sum of SLL 100,000, in accordance with Article 100 of Edict No. 47. “These fines do not deter the pirate, who has already gained great profits from using the invention illegally”, said Aqeel.
He believes the penalty for pirating products should be mandatory imprisonment, instead of leaving the penalty up to the judges, who in most cases impose fines.
This investigation was supported by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (www.arij.net) and coached by Dr. Marwan Qabalan.