New Eco-Patent Commons aims to open source cleantech

wbscd1.jpgA new initiative spearheaded by IBM, Nokia, Pitney Bowes and Sony will give companies a way to “donate” patents relating to cleantech or environmental science for use by entrepreneurs, governments and researchers, starting with a seed fund of some 30 patents shared by the four companies.

The Eco-Patent Commons provides free access to an online database of intellectual property maintained by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Any company with any patent is free to join the current four-company coalition and add their own patents.

Rules on how the patents may be used are simple — the donors essentially promise not to sue if anyone else uses their patent, as does the user, through a so-called “defensive termination” clause commonly used for open-source software. In theory, an entrepreneur could start an entire company based on freely available patents from the Commons.

How useful the resource actually is will only be seen over time. While the initial number of patents donated is significant, it pales in comparison to the number of patents issued each year by the large corporations supporting the Commons — anywhere from dozens to thousands. It would be easy for them to donate less valuable intellectual property, gaining a positive return from the “greenwashing” of their own brand image.

On the flipside, the initiative is open to participation from any company with even a single patent to donate, meaning it will likely grow in significance over time. Also, its terms provide what should be a trustworthy framework for entrepreneurs to use existing technology without fear of litigation, something that did not previously exist for the cleantech industry.

The Commons may also help in part to mollify growing economies like China, who complain that richer countries demand environmental responsibility from their poorer cousins without sharing their technological know-how.

A full, searchable list of patents should become available on the WBCSD website today, located here.