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Yesterday the University of London’s Queen Mary IP Research Institute (QMIPRI, as it is more manageably known) held its first ever annual conference at the New Connaught Rooms in London. The day was a great success with a good turnout and many interesting and thought-provoking talks from speakers who ranged from academics to industry insiders. Among those presenting was Roger Burt, Senior IP Counsel for IBM in Europe. After his talk I had a chat with him during one of the coffee breaks.
We ended up speaking about IBM’s new eco-patent commons initiative. Along with Nokia, Sony and Pitney Bowes, IBM has formed an association with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to facilitate the sharing of patents that can benefit the environment. The four companies have collectively donated 31 patents to the scheme covering environmental conservation innovations. This means anyone who wishes to use them can do so for free. The WBCSD gives an overview of the objectives of the eco-patent commons on its website and will be hosting a searchable archive in which all of the donated patents can be identified.
One of the patents IBM has donated relates to shock-proof cardboard packaging. Due to the way the cardboard is folded, it protects the contents, dispensing with the need for polystyrene packaging – something which is currently clogging up landfills all over the world. However, as Big Blue is not in the business of manufacturing packaging, Roger explained that it was happy for the patent to be exploited by others. All very admirable; but what’s in it for IBM, I wondered. Well, aside from the moral element, Roger said there would also be financial benefits. The more companies that manufactured the boxes, the further down the price is driven and the cheaper IBM can buy its packaging.
There is considerable pressure placed on companies by the public today to be environmentally sound, and this has clearly been picked-up on by IBM and its collaborators in the eco-patent commons. While consumerism continues to grow, there is much greater emphasis on buying green and focusing on the eco credentials of the company you are purchasing from. As you would expect, IBM is ahead of the game in realising this; witness the Project Big Green initiative launched at the end of last year, for example.
Of course, for a patent-owning giant like IBM there is also another considerable benefit to the eco-patent commons. As this blog has previously discussed, there is growing pressure from both governments and NGOs to facilitate the transfer of environmental technology. Increasingly, patents are being identified as potential barriers to the fight against global warming. A company as savvy as IBM knows that the best way to disarm critics is to look at what they are saying and to act upon it. Rather than allowing critics of the patent system to label patents as obstacles to environmental progress (with all the long-term damage that could do to patent owners’ interests), the eco-commons sets them up as facilitating tools. And IBM is there as a guiding light of the initiative, just as it is now seen as a prominent supporter of open source, despite having probably the largest portfolio of software patents in the world! Talk about grabbing the zeitgeist and turning it into a business opportunity - truly Big Blue does not miss a trick!
You might be interested in reading my thoughts when this annoucement was first made: http://www.gathering2.com/BLOGS/Gathering20BlogGathering20Executiveblog/tabid/2110/BlogID/238/EntryId/971/Default.aspx
I think it is refreshing in this age of patent bullies.
Sharon OrielSharon L Oriel, Talisker & Associates on 20 Feb 2008