Five experts discuss how intellectual property can be adapted to spread green tech, what we can learn from Pasteur, and how to inspire people to innovate.
By World Trade Organization law, if a patented drug can improve public health in a developing country, it’s available for compulsory licensing. That means that developing countries can make generics of the drug while paying a small royalty instead of the full fee to the patent-holder—a practice that makes patent-holding companies deeply uncomfortable. To date, the only drugs so licensed have been antiretrovirals to fight AIDS in Africa.
But as nations move toward global restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions for the good of us all, developing countries have begun to ponder whether other patented inventions could also be licensed. If China, for instance, decides it needs the plans for an electric car to meet a reduced emissions quota, can it get them licensed for generic production? Developing countries think the answer should be yes. Some companies, including Microsoft, Sunrise Solar, and General Electric, say no.
To combat such a revision of WTO law, these and other US companies have recently formed the Coalition for Innovation, Employment, and Development. Hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce, the coalition paints a picture of patents as crucial to turning ideas into industries. “Without the assurance that IP rights will be respected—and effort, creativity, and investments rewarded as a result—innovation will wither,” the coalition warns on its homepage.
While this seems a bit alarmist, strong patent laws have significant benefits. Should companies lose trust in patents—should they fear that their ideas will no longer be financially respected as theirs—they have an incentive to make the ideas corporate secrets instead of publicly available patents. The European Patent Office foresees the burgeoning of such legally protected secrets should patents be rendered less binding.
Making technology patentable and thus profitable has indeed been a good way to encourage companies to invest in ideas that serve the public good. However, when billions in the developing world who could benefit from these ideas cannot afford the current system, we need to consider how it can evolve.
How can we reconcile the useful qualities of the current patent system with the need for widespread use of green tech?
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