January 9, 2024

Driving along Bowling Avenue in Sandton recently, I came across this informal trader. My first instinct was to celebrate his ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills. I confess that this might have been my second instinct – the initial one being a chuckle at his humorous signage.

No one would be confused that this informal trader was in any way related to the largest supermarket retailer in Africa (SHOPRITE HOLDINGS LTD – JSE: SHP), which has a market cap of approximately R141 billion.

But let us take this thought experiment – what if the trader opened up a Facebook page with the same handle (SHOP RITE) and started gaining some local followers. At what point should Shoprite Holdings begin to take this seriously? 1,000 followers? 10,000 followers? 100,000 followers? The way social media works these days, growth could be exponential and is not constrained by the same physical limitations (such as open a physical retail supermarket in every city in the country).  

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al are incredibly reluctant to take down their users’ social media accounts at the best of times (for obvious reasons). However, they will absolutely not come to your aid if you do not have registered trademark rights (or there is some form of copyright infringement).

I am certainly not suggesting that Shoprite Holdings sues every informal trader with a sense of humour. However, the unchecked use of any company’s registered trademark could leave them in a difficult position once the other side has acquired their own reputation. This is becoming increasingly difficult with the migration of businesses to an online (social media, e-commerce) and virtual (metaverse) environment. Without protecting your IP appropriately you will be completely unable to prevent the infringement of your business’ most valuable asset.  And if you don’t think it is your most valuable asset – let me ask you this: what would you do if your largest competitor was suddenly allowed to use your best-selling brands in relation to identical products / services?

The starting point is to register your trademark. As the old proverb goes: “when is the best time to plant a tree…. 20 years ago. When is the second-best time… now”.

The protection of your IP in this fast-moving digital age is a highly specialised and complex area of law and it requires specialised expert advice. @Witz Inc, we specialise in the protection and commercialisation of IP in the digital age. Speak to one of our IP experts who will gladly assist you in securing your rights.