Innovate for a green future

Each year on the 26th of April the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) celebrates world IP day. This year the WIPO’s event is dedicated to “Innovate for a Green Future”.

Over the last decade, an increasing number of countries has committed to ambitious targets for reaching a carbon neutral economy [1]. The UK’s target is set to 2050 and has been put into legislation. Scotland is aiming to reach net-zero even earlier, by 2045.

Such a challenge requires actions at every level, from government and policymakers to individual people and businesses. It is not sufficient for researchers to come up with new ways of producing clean energy, reducing pollution or waste disposal. There must be proper policies and systems to promote the development, commercialisation and uptake of environmentally friendly technologies and the IP system, being a framework of rights and policies to support innovation, must do its part.


How can IP support innovation for a green future?

Intellectual property rights have always existed with the main purpose of encouraging innovation and creativity. For example, patents can act as an incentive for companies and investors, who are more willing to invest time, energy and money into researching and developing a new technology if in return they are granted an exclusive monopoly on their invention for a limited period of time. Patents can also act as an incentive to disclose information which otherwise might be kept secret, thereby enabling  society to benefit from it.

But it is not only patents. If you are involved in the development of green technologies, other forms of IP are likely to be relevant as well. WIPO has published an interesting article on how different IP rights can support innovation for a green future [2].

For example, product designers will often need to make specific choices in order to develop an eco-friendly product, such as eliminating unnecessary packaging, selecting recyclable materials or modifying the shape and composition to reduce energy consumption to reduce carbon footprint. Each one of these choices may affect the aesthetic appearance of the goods and can result in unique features that can be protected by registered or unregistered design rights.

Successful brands are key to a business’s reputation on the market and heavily influence the consumers behaviour. By adding words such as “Eco” and “Green” to their mark, businesses can inform their client that a product is environmentally friendly.

Geographical Indications (GIs) also have a similar role since they not only inform the consumers of the authenticity of products and their origin but they are also a guarantee that the products meet certain sustainable production standards which are determined collectively by the owners of the GI. For example, Scotch Whisky producers have committed to environmental sustainability since 2009 by setting voluntary targets for water, use of non-fossil fuels and energy efficiency, packaging and sourcing of sustainably produced casks.

Copyright also plays a role, since from the point of view of IP law, software are considered literary work which is copyright protected and many green technologies use machine learning algorithms and other type of software programs to study and optimise energy consumption, traffic or manufacturing and agricultural processes, to name just a few examples.

So, what are IP offices doing in practice to support innovation and development of green technologies and ensure that inventors and creators are taking advantage of the various rights in the best way?


Practical initiatives of IP offices

In some countries, IP offices   are offering free accelerated examination for patent applications that qualify as green technologies, with the aim of helping these technologies to reach the market more quickly. The filing to grant process can be reduced by several years when using these accelerated procedures. The rules to access the accelerated route vary from country to country. In Australia, Canada and the UK [3], for example, all environmentally-friendly innovations are eligible, whereas in China and Japan, only specific classes of technologies are accepted.

Sometimes, rather than facilitating the registration of IP rights, IP systems encourage innovation by relaxing or narrowing the protection conferred. For example, under copyright law a database’s creator has exclusive right in the database. However, various jurisdiction including the European Union have formally stated that researchers may analyse text and data in digital form to generate information on climatic trends or weather patterns without any risk of copyright infringements.

The patent system is also promoting innovation in green technology by actively contributing to the sharing of information. For example, in 2013 WIPO launched “WIPO Green” [4], an interactive online marketplace that aims at connecting technology and service providers with those seeking environmentally friendly solutions. Among their many initiatives, WIPO Green manages a variety of acceleration projects [5] for green tech and an online database [6] which offers technologies available for licensing, join ventures and sale as well as a list of needs defined by companies and institutions who are looking for technologies to tackle specific environmental problems.


Final thoughts

Despite the current efforts, however,  more needs to be done in order to accelerate innovation in green technology.

Many have observed that the accelerated examination schemes are largely under-utilised even in countries like the UK where the scheme has been in place for over a decade. One of the reasons is that patent applicants often want to delay the costs involved in patenting their technology rather than bringing them forward. Another reason is that applying for the fast track programs can often result in increased legal expenses, since the specific procedures vary from the standard application process and are different from country to country.

Many promising technologies may even make it to grant and be patented but they cannot be implemented on a large scale if there is a lack of funding, adequate policies and support by governments and institutions.

Most countries are behind their stated target for 2020 and if the 2050 target is to be met in the UK, more efforts must be put towards it. But if there is one thing that the current coronavirus pandemic has shown, it is that businesses and governments are willing to take dramatic measures when faced with the prospect of a catastrophe, even when such measures can have a negative impact on their financial interests.

Over the last few weeks various companies have made their patented products or processes publicly available and promised there would be no infringement prosecution for anyone who uses them to tackle the COVID emergency. Governments have instantly approved new procedures and large funds to develop a vaccine and have put big pharmaceutical companies under great pressure to share their patent for products that might help the fight against coronavirus. Various websites where companies can quickly set up basic licensing agreement have been put online [7].

Hopefully, everyone will learn from this experience that acting too late can have disastrous consequences and it will take us one step closer to treating the climate crisis with the appropriate sense of urgency.