A move by an alliance of global technology firms headed by IBM to share eco-friendly technology with the rest of the world could bring some benefits to smaller firms but the initiative is probably far from being wholly altruistic, says a Canadian analyst.
Big Blue, Sony, Nokia and Pitney Bowes, initial partners in what has been called the Eco-Patent Commons, yesterday announced they will release to the public domain “environmentally-responsible” patents held by their companies.
So far, 28 patents from IBM and two from Pitney Bowes are listed as available in the public Web site hosted by the Word Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a Geneva-based organization promoting sustainable business.
The move means companies seeking to use, for their own purposes, patents listed in the commons can do so without fear or facing patent-related legal action.
The launch of Eco-Patent Commons coincided with the yearly ranking of U.S. patent awards which placed IBM at the top spot for the 15th year in a row with 3,148 patents in 2007.
“This initiative frees up the playing field. However, nobody really gives away anything for free,” said Carmi Levy, research analyst and senior vice-president of Toronto’s AR Communications.
This could be a welcome development for smaller tech firms whose R & D efforts – in the past – have been hampered by the fear of being sued over patent disputes, Levy said.
A free environment can spur greater work in the development of green technology and processes, he added.
“In return, the big boys would expect an opportunity to open discussions with smaller innovators to co-develop other patents, write co-licensing agreements or initiate some profit sharing contracts,” Levy said.
Large companies, the analyst said, are engaged in numerous projects and often need a smaller partner to carry out R&D.
This, in fact, is a crucial argument used by the commons to persuade other companies to join in.
“We’re not expecting people to give away the keys to their kingdom,” said Wayne Balta, vice-president of environmental affairs for IBM.
Historically, he said, people obtain patents to protect inventions and realize profits from these for as long as possible.
“However, we want companies to understand that in some cases they might get more benefits from their patents if they open these up to other people.”
Balta argued that the Eco-Patents Common can bring firms eager to do additional research on previous patents to the attention of patent holders that could be looking for potential partners.
The idea of the Eco-Patent Commons was originally proposed at IBM’s 2007 Global Innovation Outlook conference. The annual meeting of tech firms discussed environmental matters and innovations in manufacturing last year.
“The Eco-Patent Commons provides a unique and significant leadership opportunity for businesses to make a difference by sharing their innovations and solutions in support of sustainable development,” said Bjorn Stigson, president for WBCSD.
The alliance hopes to provide environmental benefits in such areas as: energy conservation, fuel efficiency, pollution prevention, use of sustainable and environmentally friendly products and processes, water conservation and waste reduction.
Anywhere from 50 to 80 per cent of electronics waste or e-waste collected from North America ends up in Asian countries, according to the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN), a global watchdog seeking to stop the disproportionate export of toxic waste to poorer countries.
One patent submitted by IBM involves the use of eco-friendly substances to clean micro-electronic components. Environmental experts have long acknowledged that most chemicals used to clean such components release hazardous materials into the environment.
Another patent covers the use renewable, bio-degradable and recyclable flat fibre boards for flat and collapsible packaging.
One contribution from Pitney Bowes featured multiple overload protective devices designed to protect electronic scales from excessive strain.
“Environmental issues help us discover the next wave of innovations because they force us all to think differently about how we make, consume and recycle products,” said Donal O’Connell, director of intellectual property at Nokia.