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Open Intellectual Property as Sustainability Accelerator
Alex Steffen, 27 Mar 09

It's the job of the world's poor to get rich, and the job of the world's rich to redefine wealth. That is, the biggest task facing the developing world is development and human well-being, while the biggest task facing the developed world is making prosperity sustainable so that as billions of more people become prosperous, we're still able to protect the planet's biosphere.

Critical to this division of labor, though, is the idea of rapid diffusion of sustainable innovation from the epicenters of innovation (the vast majority of which are still urban conclaves in the developed world, places where universities, enterprises and cultural scenes mix and accelerate each other) to the rest of the world. That demands thinking differently about intellectual property.

IP is something we've written a lot about here. In general we tend to err on the side of the commons and intellectual freedom, we also recognize that reward for one's labors is a powerful motivator, adding the fuel of interest to the fire of genius as Lincoln put it. Some things ought to be patented and copyrighted.

Some, though, should not, and this is particularly true when we're talking about sustainable innovation diffusion to the developing world. We've already written about the Open Architecture Network as a means of distributing architectural and design innovations through a Creative Commons developing nation license. Now, though, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu makes the case for open innovation in clean energy:

The main point being:

“Since power plants are built in the home country, most of the investments are in the home country,” he said. “You don’t build a power plant, put it in a boat and ship it overseas, similar to with buildings. So developing technologies for much more efficient buildings is something that can be shared in each country. If countries actively helped each other, they would also reap the home benefits of using less energy. So any area like that I think is where we should work very hard in a very collaborative way — by very collaborative I mean share all intellectual property as much as possible. And in my meetings with my counterparts in other countries, when we talk about this they say, yes, we really should do this. But there hasn’t been a coordinated effort. And so it’s like all countries becoming allies against this common foe, which is the energy problem.”

This is an incredibly important and poorly understood idea. I also believe that in an era which may see a decline in material globalization and at least something of a return to localized production, adopting open IP becomes paradoxically more important in creating competitive advantages.

That's because I think a greatly increased amount of free innovation is inevitable, both because of the forces driving commons-based/crowd-sourced/open source solutions in general, and because the vast majority of the world's potential users for anything can't afford to pay developing world rates. If something's going to spread, it's going to spread because it's cheap, easy to use, and readily modifiable. In such a world, a creative advantage is a competitive advantage: that is, being able to add special value at the top end, rather than commodity information value, is what makes a business work.

And people who embrace open informational substrates have an advantage here. That in turn requires an embrace of the commons, in architecture, energy and everything else. That's the way to save the planet. It's also the way to save the economy.

Front page image: "Intellectual Property Donor" by flickr/camb416, Creative Commons license.

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Nice to see that Open Source ideas are getting traction
also in the higher echelons.

For a grassroots project for completely Open Source
Renewable Power (among other things), see Marcin Jakubowski's
"Open Source Ecology / Factor e Farm" project at:
and especially:

Posted by: Antti K on 28 Mar 09

Perhaps you should making broad-stroke, ambiguous comments like "Some things ought to be patented and copyrighted"

Posted by: PH on 30 Mar 09

Patents are counterproductive to a worldwide sustainable economy. They allow huge transnational corporations to rip off smaller countries. They can afford inappropriate prices for modern sustainable technologies or even deny them, if they can´t pay.
I am convinced that patents should be abolished. The refutation often mentioned that this would cause an unsufficient stimulation to be innovative can be answered that open source products like openooffice and linux were invented without this stimulation.
A further thougt of mine is:
How can we profit of inventions only one corporation is allowed to use. The situation wouldn´t be better if the patented product had not been invented.
indeed the huge transnational corporations buy small innovative corporations being innovative and having patents. So the inventors - and as I would call them - "the moral owners of patents" can´t really profit of their inventions. But the big corporations can and this is forcing monopols disagreeing about forcing worldwide prosperity.

Posted by: Lukas on 30 Mar 09

I couldn't disagree more about patents being counterproductive to a worldwide sustainable economy. In fact, I would argue the opposite. Patents allow individuals and small companies the ability to compete with the large corporations, and they give large corporations the motivation to strive for the incredible.

As an engineer that has worked in both environments, on a new product development team for a Fortune 100, and a DIY inventor working in my garage, I can tell you without the ability to protect IP this world would not have have seen many of the great inventions of the last two hundred years.

On the large scale, the ability to protect IP gives a company the ROI opportunity it needs to tackle very large and very complicated projects. Why, as a for profit company that must answer to its shareholders, would I throw millions into developing high risk projects if the minute I released it, my competition could put out a carbon copy? I wouldn't. Why would I take a gamble on a project that could yield an amazing product, if day 2 of its release every competitor and their mom has the exact thing.

On the small scale, IP is even MORE important. In a world with no IP, and I am Joe Inventor, how could I protect my invention? The minute I try to market it or seek investment, the LARGE corporations are simply going to copy it and out spend me in the marketing and distribution channels. I would have no chance. The DIY inventor would die without the ability to secure his/her IP.

Using Open Office to bolster your argument is off slightly. It was not developed with the idea of an open source open idea product. Open Office used to be Star Office, dates back to 1984. It was not distributed free until 1998, and the the code not released until 1999.

Linux is a much better example for you. I would do some research and only use Linux in the future. The problem is, of the millions and millions of products available, there are very very few examples of Linux type successes.

Further, I am of the firm opinion these products are successful because they are positioned AGAINST the often criticized as greedy and closed Microsoft. Open Office was not released to provide the world with an open source office application. No, it was released by Sun to reduce the market share Microsoft's products. Microsoft is kind of a big competitor to Sun. This wasn't a make the world a better place move by Sun, it was a put a chink in the armor of a competitor move.

This is the the tip of the iceberg. I really don't think you put much thought into a world with no IP. As imperfect as it may be, lets discuss improvements and changes. Getting rid of it completely is lunacy. To argue against IP is to argue against capitalism and free markets all together, IMO. And maybe thats what you are trying to do. You should frame your case around that then, and not simply dissolving IP.

Last point, how are small innovative companies who are bought by large trans nats NOT profiting from the IP they invented? They were BOUGHT were they not? They were paid for their inventions. Isn't this the definition of profiting? This example again damages your argument. In a world without IP, the corp wouldn't have even bothered buying the 'small innovative company'. They would have simply copied and outspent in the market place, thus bankrupting the smaller company and its employees. You see how IP allows small innovators to profit? Being bought out, especially in the software industry, is often the idea and the motivation FOR inventing in the first place. No, this is my last point =) You are implying that large corporations are not innovative?? Ask GE about that. As Google about that. This is another post for another time, and I am glad you put your thoughts and opinions out there, but whew my man....

Posted by: Jacob on 5 Apr 09

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