27 January 2010
No Need to Wait (or Pay) for Climate Technology
But David E. Martin, an intellectual property activist who works with many developing countries, argues that a great many green technologies are already in the public domain and ready to be developed. They just need to be identified and used.
Martin’s brilliant and subversive innovation, launched earlier this month, is called the Global Innovation Commons (GIC). The project is described in a cover article in the German magazine Der Spiegel called "Patent Lies: Who Says Saving the Planet Has to Cost a Fortune?"
The Global Innovation Commons is a massive interactive archive of energy-saving technologies whose patents have expired, been abandoned, or simply have no protection. The idea is to let entrepreneurs and national governments query the database on a country-by-country basis to identify helpful technologies that are in the public domain. Once identified, these technologies for energy, water, and agriculture are prime candidates for being developed at lower costs than patented technologies.
The World Bank is a partner on this project, along with the International Finance Corporation’s infoDev unit. The World Bank has estimated that the technologies in the GIC database could save more than $2 trillion in potential license fees. The Global Innovation Commons essentially seeks to bring the advantages of the open-source software development model—open participation, faster innovation, greater reliability, cheaper costs—to technologies that are claimed to be patented.
Here’s how the Global Information Commons describes the role of patents in impeding innovation—and how the new database helps establish a new open-innovation commons:
For the past 30 years, patents have been abused. Rather than serving the public’s expansion of knowledge, they’ve been used as business and legal weapons. Over 50,000,000 patents covering everything you do have served to keep you from benefiting in many aspects of your life. Many life-saving treatments have been kept from the market because they threaten established business interests. The world’s ecosystem has been severely damaged because efficiencies have been kept from entering the market.
In the face of all this, however, there is the good news: The thirty-year “cold war” of innovation is over. Today, you now have access to it all. In the Global Innovation Commons, we have assembled hundreds of thousands of innovations—most in the form of patents—which are either expired, no longer maintained (meaning that the fees to keep the patents in force have lapsed), disallowed, or unprotected in most, if not all, relevant markets. This means that, as of right now, you can take a step into a world full of possibilities, not roadblocks. You want clean water for China or Sudan—it’s in here. You want carbon-free energy—it’s in here. You want food production for Asia or South America—it’s in here.
Der Spiegel notes that the Global Information Commons database represents such a huge advance because it aggregates so many different patent-free technologies from so many different parts of the world:
[Martin’s] custom-made software and a vast server are programmed to trawl and compare hundreds of thousands of files containing patent information from what would seem an incongruous list of places: Papua New Guinea, Berlin, the Brazilian rain forest, New York. Some of these patents are current; others have expired. What Martin—and those who work with him at M-CAM—say they found is that one in three patents registered today on energy-saving technology duplicate gadgets that were first dreamed up in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis and are now freely available.
Martin says that a great many patents are not novel at all. They simply duplicate innovations that were made decades ago. But patent applications often disguise this fact by using colorful and complicated language. Overworked government patent examiners, struggling with limited resources and seeking to avoid legal hassles, often grant new patents that are not truly warranted.