Sunday, April 3, 2011

Putting expired patents to work in novel ways

This post written by Richard Eckersley, posted by Paul Barratt

Putting expired patents to work in novel ways – Australia to lead on new innovation models

Ross Garnaut, head of the Garnaut Climate Change Review, recently noted that successful Australian innovation effort will encourage the effective and early use of technologies developed in other countries, as well as the discovery and application in Australia of globally new technologies.

But beyond new technologies, a wider “innovation literacy” view, including use of existing or expired patents, provides for a more comprehensive picture of the drivers of the rate and direction of innovation, and of the impediments that can prevent successful innovation.

Such an approach has been developed by David E. Martin, an intellectual property activist based in the US, who works with many developing countries. David argues that a great many green technologies are already in the public domain and are ready to be developed. They just need to be identified and put to use.

Dr Martin is founder of the Global Innovation Commons (GIC) - a massive interactive archive of energy-saving technologies whose patents have expired, been abandoned, or simply have no protection.

The GIC encourages entrepreneurs and national governments to 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.

In the Global Innovation Commons, hundreds of thousands of innovations have been assembled, which are either expired, no longer maintained (meaning that the fees to keep the patents in force have lapsed), disallowed, or unprotected in most, if not all, relevant markets.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, steps can be taken into a world full of possibilities, not road blocks. Whether it’s clean water for China or Sudan, or carbon-free energy — it’s likely to be in the GIC.

Martin argues that patents often serve to impede innovative technologies and make them unaffordable — at precisely the time when all countries of the world, rich and poor, need to adopt cutting-edge energy technologies to cut carbon emissions.

In touting "open innovation," Martin takes the tradition of free software and digital commons to exciting new frontiers. The Global Innovation Commons promises to spur a strong new wave of technological innovation through the sharing of new ideas rather than through exclusive, private control of them. As Martin puts it, "What we do is trawl documents for their true meaning. But what we care about are basic human issues. In this case, it's to show what belongs to the big guys and what belongs to society."

Which brings us to the real challenge and opportunity offered by climate change – that of the chance for Australia to evolve as a global leader in resource and energy innovation that benefits the whole society and not just a few large corporations. New energy technologies will play a substantial role in both the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.

The urgency of the adjustment task shouldn’t be underestimated, and the change in incentives derived from carbon pricing can justify a large transitional increase in public support for innovation related to low-emissions technologies.

Fresh thinking, new business models, wiser leadership and continuous strategic innovation, are needed if Australia is to design and enact a low-carbon, steady state economy. The end point is not to undo industry but, on the contrary, to reinvent it as a viable force for sustainable living that comprises efficient practices and zero waste.

Clean-tech industries are a target for development under China’s next five year plan, and provide a major opportunity for Australia to leverage its expertise in green technology. China’s green energy market is estimated by investment funds such as Peony Capital, to be around $1 trillion.

Creating and developing global alliances in low-tech will not only assist Australia in improving its innovation performance; it will position Australia to reduce emissions for the larger polluters, such as China and India. 

The implications for Australia of this new approach to innovation are clear:

-  In every key environmental technology sector more patents are abandoned and expire into the public domain than from all currently enforced commercial platforms. The solutions for everything from distributed power, to fuel cells, to intelligent batteries, to wind, solar, water energy and purification, hydrogen fuel, and much more are available in the Open Source commons

-  Most of what we call invention and innovation is nothing of the kind. Most of it is incremental and serves only our current addiction to unsustainable growth

-  The majority of innovations today arise not from individual genius, but from networks. It is the fusion of contributors to these networks, linked to markets, which is the core of enterprise creation

-  Networked, open-source, innovation provides broad social and cultural benefits rather than just short-term unsustainable growth at any cost

-  Australia is well-placed to review government policies in order to liberate and recycle innovation. In doing so it could lead the world in developing a new innovation literacy - applying it directly to reconstruction following natural disasters.

David Martin, a partner in The Constellation, is speaking at an Australia21 national conference Innovation – Driving Resilient Energy and Economic Futures on Thursday 14 April 2011 at The Australian National University.

Hear an introductory video of Dr David Martin speaking about the Global Innovation Commons here.

Find further details and register for the Australia21 Conference Innovation – Driving Resilient Energy and Economic Futures, Australian National University, Thursday 14 April 2011, here.

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