Global Innovation Commons

As the world attention converges on Copenhagen climate summit, a little-mentioned issue is the proper role of patents in encouraging the development of emissions-free energy technologies. Large tech companies like to claim that they need broad patents to encourage their investment in innovative new technologies. And they are poised to make a fortune off of selling patent licenses for new "green technologies" designed to abate carbon emissions.

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 last week, is the Global Innovation Commons. The project is described in a cover article in the German magazine Der Spiegel 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 an compare hundreds of thousands of files containing patent information from what would seem an incongruous list of places: Papua New Guinea, Berlin, the Brazilian rainforest, New york. Some of these patents are now; 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. And overworked government patent examiners, struggling with limited resources and seeking to avoid legal hassles, often grant new patents that are not truly warranted.

Martin is a major irritant to large tech companies because he is challenging a key rationale for patents — that they are essential in promoting innovation. He 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 put 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 up what belongs to the big guys and what belongs to society."

A hearty commoners’ salute to Martin and the Global Innovation Commons for reclaiming technological know-how for the common good at this moment of urgent necessity.