OAKLAND, CA — The bedrock of capitalism based around innovation has for years been the idea that when someone invents a unique and in-demand product or service, it should be patented and protected at all costs.
But a growing number of companies are turning the concept of intellectual capital on its head in the name of sustainability. Count IBM, Nike and the Outdoor Industry Association among the growing list of business interests turning to open source models to lower costs and scale best practices and technologies.
"If you invent something really, really cool, it's going to be worth something," said Michel Gelobter, chief green officer at software firm Hara.
"You might have to find a way to protect it and still pursue the goal you were seeking," Gelobter said during a workshop he moderated Wednesday at the 2011 Ceres Conference. "Where is that tension, what is that goal?"
Opening up intellectual property for the common good can be traced back to the early 1970s when a group of Vietnam veterans patented their wheelchair designs and put them into the public domain, Gelobter said.
Since then, we've seen the emergence of the Eco-Index, an open source, industry-created tool to help companies evaluate product environmental footprint, and the Eco-Patent Commons, an online repository of free patents that carry some sort of environmental benefit.
For many, the move to open source began with a desire to avoid duplication. Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation at Nike and a member of Gelobter's panel, remembers learning from a designer that he'd spent the last year working on an environmentally-friendly shoebox for a Nike competitor.
Her reaction: "I've just spent a whole year working with 30 designers to do the same thing. I'm not competing on a shoebox."
It's not about giving away the crown jewels, Jones said. "This is about a very careful strategy of understanding where as an industry can we collaborate to scale faster, and where can we continue to compete?"
The outdoor gear industry came together several years ago to work in a noncompetitive way to develop tools and standards for the supply chain.
"That was really key," said Amy Roberts, vice president of government affairs with the Outdoor Industry Association. "The brands came together and set aside competitive marketing and consumer issues. Instead we're just going to work on the supply chain first and take away the pressure to go to a label."
Focus areas included improving the environmental footprint of product manufacturing, identifying environmentally materials and responsible product disposal.
"To me the real change is that if you work together in large scale way, you can really drive major change in the supply chain that would be very difficult to do as individual brands just because of the scale," Roberts said.
For IBM, launching the Eco-Patent Commons in 2008 with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development followed earlier pledges not to claim intellectual property rights for patents related to software interoperability and the open source, healthcare and education communities.
The company learned early that it could "invest a little and get a lot more" by sharing its research with the public, according to Arnaud Le Hors, program director of IBM's open source and standards project office. Le Hors pointed to a patent the company held for an alternative to a toxic solvent.
The company didn't make money off the solvent, Le Hors said. "That was a perfect candidate for us to share."
Image CC licensed by Flickr user qisur.