Nine months after the launch of the Eco-Patents Commons, three global business heavyweights have recently entered the arena. On Monday, GreenBiz reported that Xerox, DuPont, and Bosch all pledged to free eco-patents to the public domain, joining the ranks of Sony, Pitney-Bowes, Nokia, and spearhead IBM.
According to GreenBiz, the January 2008 launch was “an unprecedented step in the development of clean technologies,” with businesses essentially giving away ideas so that other businesses could utilize and develop upon their innovations. The recent inclusion has more than double the eco-patents now available.
Some of the new additions include patents from Xerox that use vacuum extraction to quickly, cheaply, and more efficiently remove hazardous wastes from soil as well as a patent from DuPont to turn non-recyclable plastics into fertilizer.
What are the “Eco-Patents Commons”?
The Commons were borne from a collaboration between IBM and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. With now over 70 patents, its intention was to bring together a collection of patents covering new technologies, processes, and ideas that can be used to address a wide range of environmental problems. David Kappos, IBM’s assistant general counsel, calls it “an open source effort along the lines of the Creative Commons.” Traditionally, patents have been the antitheses of any sort of public collectivity, but the idea is that in doing so, the standard of environmental stewardship can be raised in terms of the operations of companies throughout the world.
In an interview early this year with GreenBiz, Wayne Balta, IBM’s VP of Environmental Affairs said: “The premise here is that, in the environmental arena, sharing knowledge and technology has the great potential to address the world’s problems.” And this is something that had had not existed on a global basis, according to Balta.
Likewise, the Commons were created with a business purpose. In sharing patents, the companies hope to create new business opportunities from the innovation that results. Be it water-soluble solder fluxes or methods for recycling optical disks, Kappos asserts: “There’s no reason that environmentally sustainable activity cannot be commercially advantageous.”
Arguments to the Commons
Despite the seeming business and environmental advantages of the collaboration, there are these who dismiss it as an ineffective endeavor. In an April article on BusinessGreen.com, the “sluggish nature” of the patent system was blamed for the obsolescence of many of the patents that are being shared in the Commons. As such, by the time a patent goes through the bureaucracy of US Patent Office, it will no longer be relevant to the environmental nor the business community.
The article also questions whether the patents have much utility to begin with, because if they did so, the donating company wouldn’t have shared it in order to retain its competitive advantage.
Though they are definitely valid, the arguments appear to be missing the spirit of what the Commons were created for. The Commons seek a way for businesses to collaborate on a global basis, not just think about traditional bottom-lines and market competition. They seek to better the world around us by means of a mutual exchange of know-how and expertise. They seek to create a place where what’s good for the environment is also good for business. And vice versa.
Readers: What do you think? Will the Eco-Patents Commons change the way global business operate? Or is it a case of “nice try, but not enough” on the part of the members?