Three things to know about how Intellectual Property can contribute to sustainability transitions 

On World Intellectual Property Day 2022, we take a look at how Intellectual Property can contribute to accelerating transformations to sustainability.

Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, Mojave Desert, October 2020

Limiting warming to under 1.5°C and avoiding the most hazardous effects of climate change will require immediate action to reduce emissions by transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards low emissions technologies. Many of the innovations needed to support this transition – such as improved batteries for electric vehicles – are currently going through rapid development, fuelled by scientific advances, falling costs and increasing demand. In addition to advances in materials and technology, achieving deep decarbonisation will also require wide-spread dissemination and take-up of innovations that can reduce reliance on fossil fuels. 

In this context, the IPACST (Intellectual Property in Sustainability Transitions) project funded through the Transformations to Sustainability programme is exploring how different Intellectual Property models can help or hinder transformations to sustainability, and working to identify best practices.  

Intellectual Property – or IP – ranges from patents and trademarks to trade secrets and copyright, and is defined by the World Intellectual Property Organization as referring to ‘creations of the mind’. As a recent IPACST knowledge brief explains, any organization generates informal IP, and some create ‘formal’ IP, which requires registration

IP is often associated with mechanisms to reduce knowledge-sharing and protect information that could be used more widely. But that’s a misunderstanding, according to the authors of the IPACST brief: IP rights do not prescribe any kind of behaviour, and therefore do not per se slow down technology diffusion. What matters is how those rights are used.

The good news emerging from the IPACST project is that strategic use and sharing of IP rights can be used to accelerate innovation for sustainable development. Here’s three things to know about how:

  • Rather than being a ‘one-size-fits-all’, different strategies for IP for green innovations are available. An analysis of European green inventors who had been given the European Inventor Award found that different IP strategies had been used by winners, including closed and semi-open IP, and particularly non-exclusive licensing, in which the right to commercially exploit the invention is given to multiple entities. The Nobel-prize winning chemist Akira Yoshino, inventor of the lithium-ion battery, is quoted in the paper as saying ‘patents are not used to keep people out, rather we licence our patents to encourage many other manufacturers to use our technology’. 
  • IP strategies can also be designed to foster positive social impacts. The IPACST research team interviewed the CEO of Nutriset, the manufacturer of a famine relief product, which has used patents in order to establish a franchise model that supports local manufacturing in the Global South, and protects them from competitors in the Global North. Through this model Nutriset has created about 400 permanent jobs in West Africa. 
  • IP rights may support rapid diffusion of sustainable products and technologies by supporting collaboration between start-ups and larger, long-standing firms. Start-ups are frequently proposed as disruptive innovators that can bring about the kind of radical change needed within manufacturing. But they often lack the resources and capacity needed to create long-term change. IP licensing models may offer potential as a way to bridge this gap and more effectively facilitate diffusion of sustainable products and technologies.  

Intellectual Property Rights have an important role in determining the rate of change in manufacturing and in the development of sustainable products, but there is a lot still to learn about exactly how IP rights systems could be used to support innovation and diffusion of technology. This is especially the case when products are manufactured and sold multinationally, in countries that may have differing IP regimes.

On World Intellectual Property Day, find out more about IPACST and the findings emerging from the project on the Transformations to Sustainability website. You can also hear from IPACST project leader, Elisabeth Eppinger, and principal investigator, Frank Tietze, in a recent podcast from the UK Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys:


Image by James Rathmell on Unsplash

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