By the IPACST (Intellectual Property Models for Accelerating Sustainability Transitions) team.
The Covid-19 pandemic and anthropogenic climate change are both global challenges for humanity and crises of unprecedented scale that call for international collective responses. While both are urgent, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to many as more imminent, maybe because of its rapid spread and visible threat to life. In just a few months, the pandemic has led to large scale international responses, while mitigating climate change appears to be a much slower, longer endeavour.
For both crises however, intellectual property (IP) lends itself as an important policy tool. Innovation plays a major role for ending both crises for which solutions are likely to be technology dependent. Considerations regarding the ownership, access to and usage of IP rights, such as patents, copyright, design rights and trademarks, but also of data and trade secrets are important for effective innovation processes and for governing collaborative, open and global innovation systems. For instance, patents (or the prospect of getting a patent) can provide strong investment incentives for stakeholders who engage in the development of green technologies as well as for finding the Covid-19 vaccine. Licensing mechanisms are important for the global south to access sustainable technologies, such as solar energy, but also for Covid-19 diagnostics and hopefully later the vaccine. Accordingly, understanding choices and effects of IP models along technology development processes is paramount for both crises.
For the IPACST project we study how IP models can be used to help achieve sustainability transitions. We focus on how firms with proven sustainable impact adopt IP models with different degrees of openness during the development and diffusion stages of sustainable technologies, and how these relate to sustainable business models. We distinguish IP models on a continuum ranging from closed (i.e. centralised IP ownership with the owner not sharing any IP) to open (i.e. IP is publicly accessible and usable).
To end the Covid-19 pandemic, various IP models are currently being discussed and tried, which likewise can be distinguished by the degree of openness. WIPO is currently advocating strong IP rights to maximise innovation incentives. Some countries have already enforced compulsory licensing (e.g. in Canada, Israel) and others have called for patent pools (e.g. as proposed by the Costa Rica’s government to the WHO), which are both forms of semi-open IP models. Examples of even more open models include the EU’s approach to develop a vaccine as a global public good and voluntary pledges that release crisis-critical IP for the duration of the pandemic. Pledge examples include firm-specific ones (e.g. by ventilator manufacturers, such as Medtronic, Smiths Group) but also platform-pledges (e.g. the Open Covid Pledge adopted by major tech-giants incl. IBM, Microsoft, Intel). During the current pandemic, a large number of voluntary grassroots initiatives engage in development efforts, such as the Cambridge Open Ventilator System Initiative (OVSI). Many of these adopt very open outbound IP models, such as open hardware CERN v.2 license to ensure access to their technology for the global south.
Preliminary IPACST findings can be carefully transferred to the Covid-19 pandemic, with so many technology development / diffusion processes currently taking place. For instance, for the vaccine development, a particular crisis-critical product, huge investments are needed, wherefore IP policies may need to be tuned to maximize innovation incentives and investments. For already existing crisis-critical products, such as diagnostic kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), IP policy might focus on maximizing access, ensuring that no country will be left behind. Following successful breakthrough developments of crisis-critical products, e.g. when a vaccine will be approved, IP policy might then have to shift from incentivising innovation to facilitating access, where different licensing models are likely to play important roles.
As things stand, IP needs urgent attention – and probably better understanding – by policy makers involved in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic as well as mitigating climate change. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as a UN intergovernmental agency, should take centre stage, including for educating politicians. IP is a tool to help govern global open innovation systems, and should therefore be given higher priority when leading into a more sustainable post-Covid-19 world.