The Time Traveller: The beer war

08 February 2019
Author   Dr Hugh Ellis
I’ve been unusually pre-occupied with beer in the last few days.
I don’t drink it much. But I was intrigued by media articles on the tussle between the new kid on Namibia’s beer block, Desert Lager, and Namibia Breweries Limited (NBL), who accuse desert lager of stealing the recipe for their Tafel Lite.
I was surprised to see that, of all my thousands of tweets, one of the few to go semi-viral was one expressing my opinion about this upcoming beer war.
Generally, people shouldn’t copy others’ stuff.
I’d be very angry if someone copied my PhD thesis word-for-word and submitted it to another university to obtain a degree.
I’d be annoyed if someone wrote and published almost the same column as mine, claiming it as their own work, or a photo with the same composition and lighting. Though both of these things do happen in the media industry with relative impunity, and the second has, in fact, happened to me.
Experts in the intellectual property world tell me that although Namibia doesn’t do formal patents for recipes, it’s of critical importance that Tafel was first to market. So, as far as the law is concerned, if the beer IS identical, the law protects NBL because they got their product out first.
That’s the law. But the law is a product of human hands, human brains and human societies. I can’t help, as, among other things, a student of human society, that this whole legal wrangle verges on the absurd.
Haven’t humans been brewing beer for thousands of years? Aren’t the recipes of various alcoholic beverages - along with the basic structure of music and language, not to mention our propensity for both love and violence - part of the common inheritance of all humanity?
Is every maize famer now expected to pay royalties to the Native American nations who first domesticated this plant, selectively breeding and engineering a high-calorie food crop from natural small-seeded grasses? You could argue the case, I suppose. It would certainly make for a fairer world order.
There’s another angle here. Even if Tafel Lite is ‘the exact same liquid’, to quote NBL, does that make it the exact same product?
There are some famous studies from the US in which consumers were ready to swear that the identical lemonade tasted sourer when served to them in greener containers. I could never tell the difference, in a blind test, between Castle and Black Label, but friends have insisted they knew the one from the other.
I’m not saying we are all deluded, but a big part of the appeal of any product, even food, is the culture it is attached to, and the memories and aspirations attached to the brand. That’s just life in a consumerist society.
There’s still another layer to be peeled back. Desert Lager is, in a way, what Namibian society aspires too. Coming from humble backgrounds, some young black entrepreneurs appear to have ‘made it’ in a difficult, monopolistic, white-dominated industry. They created a successful business. This is what we keep telling black graduates who can’t find jobs, to do.
If feel at least one reason why my tweet got such reaction was that the general public see at least a hint of arrogance in the NBL approach.
Here is a company that was founded by white settlers in ‘South West’, which benefitted for years from stolen land and cheap black labour, taking on some plucky black guys who have defined the odds to overcome post-colonial poverty.
Obviously, I’m painting in very broad strokes here, but who except the most ardent colonial apologist would deny all aspects of this narrative?
We white folk need to take note of how keen is the public memory of our ancestors’ crimes, many of which have never been properly atoned for. And this is true even when our post-Independence selves are ‘technically’ in the right.
It is for this reason that I avoided taking to court or demanding compensation from the young black photographer who once virtually copied some of my images, though I did have a stern word with him in private.
And also why intellectual property is not always the ‘black and white’ issue it might seem.
Hugh Ellis has only Clausthaller non-alcoholic beer and Slowtown coffee in his desk drawer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST).  The views expressed here are personal, and not necessarily those of his employer. Follow him on Twiitter @ellis_hugh


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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