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Eco-Patent Commons: Fertile Ground for Future Green Building Technologies?

Open-source collaboration has fueled the explosion of web-based software applications for years, but what about its potential for developing next-generation green building materials? Several global businesses, including IBM, Sony, Pitney Bowes and Nokia, recently announced their efforts to share patented environmental practices with the public by pledging their environmental-friendly patents to Eco-Patent Commons, a new website hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (“WBCSD”). The patents, which must either directly or indirectly protect the environment, will be searchable and freely available to all members of the public. WBCSD hopes that the effort will lead to collaborative innovations in energy efficiency, pollution prevention, increased recycling capacity, and the creation of more sustainable materials.

The premise of Eco-Patent Commons is to promote innovation and collaboration between companies that have successfully tackled a particular challenge that benefits the environment and those who are facing similar challenges. Rather than attempting to freely obtain important assets that are crucial to members’ businesses, Eco-Patent Commons focuses on the sharing of environmental patents that may offer a nominal business value, but would provide a greater value if they were accessible to the public.

The Commons was introduced at IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook Conference, where a variety of business, academic and non-profits met to discuss pressing social and business challenges. “The Eco-Patent Commons provides a unique and significant leadership opportunity for business to make a difference –- sharing their innovations and solutions in support of sustainable development,” said Bjorn Stigson, President of the WBCSD. “The Eco-Patent Commons also provides an opportunity for companies and other entities to identify areas of common interest and establish new relationships that can lead to further development in the patented technologies and elsewhere.”

Eco-Patent Commons allows users to browse the full list of patents, identify patent home classes that have an environmental benefit, or search for a specific patent. Membership in the Eco-Patent Commons is open to all businesses pledging one or more patents, and the patents to be pledged are left to the discretion of each business. The only requirement is that the patent must either directly benefit the environment, such as new technology to accelerate groundwater remediation, or have an indirect effect, such as an innovative business practice that reduces energy consumption. Nokia, for example, has presented a patent to help creating new electronics, such as digital cameras and PDAs, from used cell phone parts. Nokia’s Director of Intellectual Property, Donal O’Connell, noted that “[e]nvironmental issues have great potential to help us discover the next wave of innovation because they force us all to think differently about how we make, consume and recycle products . . . Recycling the computing power of mobile phones in this way could significantly increase the reuse of materials in the electronics industry.”

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