Freeing Intellectual Property for the Good of the Planet

Freeing Intellectual Property for the Good of the Planet

With the launch of the Eco-Patent Commons earlier this week, four companies -- IBM, Nokia, Pitney-Bowes and Sony -- joined with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development to do something almost unprecedented: they agreed to relinquish their control over inventions that could benefit the planet in order to spur innovation for the greater good.

Similar to the open source software movement, the Eco-Patent Commons aims to share knowledge as a way to address large-scale problems. IBM, which released 27 patents to the commons this week, has spearheaded the initiative after more than a year of discussion. I sat down with Wayne Balta, IBM's Vice President of Environmental Affairs, to talk about how the Commons came about, and how businesses of all sizes can benefit.

Matthew Wheeland: Wayne, thanks very much for joining me this afternoon. To begin with, will you give me a thumbnail sketch of the Eco-Patent Commons -- what is it and who is involved so far?

Wayne Balta: The Eco-Patent Commons is a first of its kind initiative under which we at IBM and some other like-minded companies are partnering with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to create a place where patents related to the environment can be pledged by the patent holder so that others around the world can access them and use them free of charge.

The basic premise here is that in the environmental arena, sharing knowledge and technology has the great potential to better address the world's problems. That there exists no organized way today to do this on a global basis. That leading businesses may hold patents that are not an essential source of business income to them. And that by sharing them with others on a global basis, both developed and developing countries, it can help people develop in a more sustainable way. And for those who pledge the patents it might also need to lead to new opportunities for innovation and collaboration with others, whom you might not otherwise reach.

MW: Who are you working with so far? You mentioned the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. What other companies are involved with Eco-Patent Commons?

WB: Sure. The WBCSD, the World Business Council, will be the host organization. It will be the home for the Eco-Patent Commons. The other companies with whom we're working, upon the announcement of this, are Nokia, Sony, and Pitney Bowes.

MW: Before getting into too much detail about the patents themselves, tell me a little bit about how the idea came about.

WB: This idea originated during IBM's Global Innovation Outlook. Now, that begs the question what is IBM's Global Innovation Outlook. IBM's Global Innovation Outlook is the process we at IBM undertake in order to help us better understand the global challenges that are in significant need of innovation from the business sector. And to do this we undertake a lengthy series of conversations with external opinion leaders and IBMers together all over the world. And we do this during the course of a calendar year and we focus on just a few topics.

Well, a little over a year ago when we did the Global Innovation Outlook, one of the topics was environment and energy. And as we had these conversations about innovation in the arena of energy and environment around the world, the Americas, Europe, and Asia, the question of innovation and collaboration for environmental solutions came up over and over.

It was near the end of that process with the Global Innovation Outlook that the idea came forth for companies to consider pledging into a common space some of their intellectual property as a means to not only help the world accelerate sustainable development, but also as a means for potential new collaborations for the companies who make those pledges. The net is that it came up during an IBM process we undertake with people outside the company. And since that time we were so pleased to get involved with the World Business Council and Nokia, Pitney Bowes, and Sony.

MW: This is an idea that IBM has been discussing for a long time, for nearly two years as far as I can tell. What was the final obstacle to overcome -- or why is now the time to launch?

WB: Well, we did discuss this for well over a calendar year. And we have indeed presented the idea to a wide set of additional companies. Many of whom consider it to this day. In terms of creating this, some of the obstacles were simply a) to find an appropriate home for it, which we eventually did with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, an ideal home for this. And then b) simply finding other like minded companies to join us in order to get this idea actually created and in place.

In terms of doing that -- you know, pledging patents for free use by others is not necessarily a common way companies think about their portfolio of intellectual property and we at IBM recognize that. Now, we at IBM probably have as much or more experience as anyone with this because we have also done prior patent pledges. So we recognize that as we've spoken to others about the idea that it isn't something that you're innately thinking of doing. But as people think through the best use of some of this IP and the opportunities that could come out of a commons like the one we're creating, many have realized and others I believe will realize that it can be a win-win situation.

It can be a win for innovators in other parts of the world, who might look at these ideas and further them and use them as the basis of additional solutions. And it can be a win for those who pledge because it could open up opportunities to collaborate with people that you might not otherwise have collaborated with.

MW: How is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development an ideal home for this project?

WB: Well, the reason it's an ideal home is because first of all it has two characteristics that are very appealing. First, it is a truly global organization. If you look at its membership, the member companies that support the World Business Council for Sustainable Development come from all corners of the globe, companies in a variety of very diverse industry sectors. So it's global. It represents the true diversity of industry.

And the other aspect is that it has a very large membership. 200 plus member companies. So it actually ends up offering to an effort like this an attractive channel, an attractive home to disseminate information from the business community on how to address environmental challenges. I would also mention that Bjorn Stigson, who is the president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Bjorn Stigson was one of the external opinion leaders who participated in IBM's Global Innovation Outlook a year plus ago. And so Bjorn Stigson had a first hand opportunity to witness how this idea was discussed and developed. And we're so pleased that he and the others which help him govern the World Business Council have so readily embraced it.

MW: What are some of the concerns that companies have raised when this idea was broached and what are some of the benefits? Does it go back to sort of the idea that all patents are kind of building off an earlier innovation?

WB: Well, I think you know for the companies that... there are benefits for the companies who participate and there are benefits for, of course, people who might access these as well as the Earth we all share.

For companies who choose to participate in this, this can be a catalyst for further innovation and collaboration. I can't stress that enough. Secondly, it becomes an efficient channel for sharing this knowledge that you have with others so that you make known to others that you have had demonstrable expertise on a given technical problem. And you stand ready to work with them and help diffuse it further. And then third, we do believe, as a first of its kind effort in the environmental space, that it presents an extraordinary opportunity for corporate leadership on sustainable development.

Now, in terms of benefits for people who use this in the planet. Well, obviously it provides free unencumbered access to intellectual property that has the potential to help improve aspects of the environment. Another benefit is that it would put in one place this information so that the information and opportunities are easy to find. And it becomes, for people who use it, an avenue for potential collaboration between the user and the company that makes the pledge as well as others.

MW: Are there any restrictions on the uses of these patents? I'm thinking of something like the Creative Commons licenses that you see on the web. Do products developed using this patents also need to be in the commons?

WB: We have not envisioned such restrictions as we've set up the Eco-Patent Commons. We've simply said that companies with the patents will pledge them into this space and essentially won't attempt to collect royalty payments from those who use them. So we have not defined, as we launched this, restrictions like you're referencing.

MW: In terms of the patents themselves, how many patents is IBM releasing? What areas do they cover?

WB: Upon our launch of the patents right now, we at IBM are going to release 27 patents into the Commons. And in our case at IBM they typically involve processes and technologies that are used in microelectronics manufacturing in many cases. Not all, but many. And that's perhaps to be expected, given the kind of technology that IBM as a company is fundamentally involved in. A couple of examples:

One we would cite is a patent that has to do with the innovative use of ozone as a material for cleaning the surface of semi-conductors and wafers during their manufacture. Often times in the electronics industry one would clean these materials from unwanted residues with solvents and other chemical products. And as we all know that has the potential to generate wastes, which need to be carefully managed. The patent here regards a process of using ozone to remove the materials, which results in a properly cleaned product in a much more environmental preferably way.

Another patent I would point out covers packaging. The way in which we ship products from one place to another, how you package them. And this one is a five-sided tray that absorbs shocks well using lightweight, renewable, recyclable materials. It doesn't use any glues. The material is less expensive than foam or other packaging materials. And the basic design, we think, can be used not just by our industry and shipping what we ship, but for other industries and products of various sizes.

One of the neat aspects of this is how it enables -- because it's more dense it enables more products to be shipped on a given pallet while still adequately protecting what's inside the box and being shipped. And that results in lesser transportation expense, which is also good for both the environment and of course expense. So those are a couple of examples.

And I would just finally mention that one of our colleagues in this initiative, I understand Nokia is pledging a patent that deals with innovative ways in which one can reuse returned cell phones in order to take out the components and reuse them into a suite of different basic useful consumer type products. So we're hoping for some diversity here of course. And that will be a function of the companies who participate and what they're able to pledge.

MW: That sounds very interesting. And I think the examples you gave from IBM's patents are especially interesting because it covers not just fairly specific tech industry needs, but something like the packaging patent sounds like something that could be implemented by almost any industry.

WB: Exactly. That's exactly what we're thinking in pledging it. And even on the one that regards the use of ozone in lieu of, let's say chemical solvents, this of course can be used to clean things like semi-conductors, but we think it's also a technology that can be used to clean many other surfaces. Whether it's glass that's used for things like televisions or eyeglasses or camera optics, things like that. So the premise here is that one never knows what another individual who looks at this and has an easy way of finding it will dream up on their own as an application. And that's the potential beauty of this whole idea here.

MW: Now, IBM is a patent powerhouse -- it has led the U.S. in patents received for a dozen years or more. How did the company pick these 27 patents to release into the wilds?

WB: Well, as we came up with this idea I suspect the process we went through at IBM would be a process that we would encourage other companies to go through as well. Particularly, you take a scan through your portfolio of patents and you try to identify those which have some legitimate environmental aspect to them.

In other words does the patent regard a technology or a process that can create something or get something done in a way which is beneficial to the environment. So it doesn't necessarily have to be a patent for a green product. It could be a patent for a process and gets that process done in a more environmentally preferable way.

So as we looked through our own portfolio we looked for patents that had that aspect to them. And you know upon the launch of this, this batch that we picked to pledge, these 27 patents, they all had that characteristic. So that's the process we went through to figure out what was applicable here. And I think it would - you know I think that would make sense for others who want to do the same thing.

MW: What would your advice be to other companies that are looking to join this group?

WB: My advice would be to think differently and think a little bit more broadly than the ways in which we have all been perhaps accustomed to thinking about our portfolios of patents. First, think about some of the grand environmental challenges facing society. And then ask whether or not the folks in your company have made patented innovations that can help others improve their own circumstance in different places around the world.

And if the answer is yes and if you're holding a patent that doesn't represent material top line or bottom line financial aspects for your business, do consider pledging it. Because in the course of doing that you stand to gain the benefit of opening yourself up to work with a number of other people that can not only use what you did to better the environment in their own locale or more globally, but also can become partners for you in currently unknown business opportunities.

MW: How does this fit into IBM's larger big green strategy?

WB: Well, as I hope you know, we at IBM have been working hard to identify how we as a company can continue to help others innovate and succeed in addressing the environmental challenges they face. Now, you may know that IBM is a company that's driven by its values, dedication to every client's success, innovation that matters, and trust and personal responsibility in our relationship. If we look at the values by which we govern our company and if you look at our interest in what we've referred to as Big Green, an effort like Eco-Patent Commons clearly resonates with that. Because it goes part and parcel to our value of innovation that matters to our company and to the world.

If we're looking to meet others and collaborate with them to solve problems, it certainly goes to the heart of dedication to client's success. And we think there's also a resonance for trust and personally responsibility in our relationships. So as we try to roll out our continued efforts on environmentally effective technologies, products, and processes for all industries across the world; something like Eco-Patent Commons clearly has a place at that table.

MW: What does success look like, either for this initiative or for IBM's participation in this initiative?

WB: I think success first of all, one aspect of success is getting this launched and off the ground. And I hope that doesn't sound trite. I mean that.

MW: No, I can imagine that this is a fairly substantial undertaking.

WB: Well, I mean that because as I referenced earlier this isn't necessarily an intuitive thing for people to do. So first of all we're pleased that's actually being launched and gotten off the ground.

Beyond that the ways in which we'll make judgments about whether it was "a successful effort" will perhaps be based on the extent to which people around the world learn of its existence and the extent to which individuals or other organizations from around the world examine what's pledged and the extent to which they consider whether they can use that in their own immediate circumstances. And if we find out over time that people know about this, that they go there to look at it, and that they make serious consideration of what's been pledged. That will represent an advancement from the status quo.

So differently, I do not personally think it's necessary for someone to say, "I looked in the Commons, I found this patent. I just used it to invent this product or service and I launched it and I made a gazillion dollars." Okay. Rather if people look at this, get further ideas, create new collaborations, and use it to solve a series of problems then that would look like success.

MW: Great. Going back to the idea that this isn't an idea that comes natural to many companies. IBM has been involved with the commons in a number of ways for a few years. In 2005 a company gave away 500 of its software patents to open source developers. Do you see parallels between open source software and open source clean technology?

WB: I think there are some parallels. One of the parallels is a commitment to innovate and to collaborate with others and to work in an open method rather than a closed method. And so I think there is an analogy there to the software patent pledge that you referenced. You know, in the environmental arena all around the world there are myriad challenges. Challenges that are local, regional, and global.

And one thing we know is that if we're all gonna succeed together in addressing these one by one it's not gonna result, in my judgment, from some unilateral deployment of some specific product by some specific company in some industry. To the contrary, it's gonna take collaboration among a variety of partners.

First to truly identify what the fundamental problem is that needs to be solved, and then beyond that to complement each other with different types of expertise in actually developing and then deploying a solution to the problem. And so we think that that kind of work occurs very favorably in an open sharing environment rather than one that might be more closed.

MW: Are there any lessons that IBM has learned from the open source software world that are applicable to this project, or that help you explain the benefits to companies that might want to join the Eco-Patent Commons?

WB: The only thing I'd really have to add there is that we regard the prior patent pledge we made in the software arena as a success. It certainly is consistent with our desire to collaborate with others and innovate. And I would say to companies that will look at this and think, "Hmm. Could this Eco-Patent Commons for the environment be a match for us?" I'd say you know come on in. The water's fine. Give it a try. This is a very open and welcoming effort. And we would like nothing better than to hear from others who'd like to be part of it.

MW: Wayne, thanks very much for joining us today.

Matthew Wheeland is the managing editor of