The Eco-Patent Commons: Caring through sharing

June 2009

By Jo Bowman

It seems counterintuitive, but big businesses are seeking to prove their green credentials by sharing environmentally-friendly innovations with their competitors. Journalist Jo Bowman takes a closer look at the Eco-Patent Commons, mentioned in the article “Sharing Technology to Meet a Common Challenge” by Antony Taubman, published in the WIPO Magazine Special Issue 2/2009.

Century-old sewing machines would seem an unlikely source of inspiration for the greening of modern manufacturing. But a patent-sharing scheme similar to that used to liberate the sewing machine industry in the 1850s is now being employed to make business cleaner.

The Eco-Patent Commons, founded by some of the world’s biggest companies – IBM, Nokia, Sony and Pitney Bowes – provides a means of sharing knowledge for mutual and wider social benefit. The idea is that patents that may have environmental benefits for other manufacturers are contributed to a pool, from which other contributors – and businesses and individuals outside the pool – can draw, free of charge. The technology, which may deal, for instance, with energy conservation, pollution prevention, recycling or water conservation, can then be applied more broadly.

The commons, run by the Geneva-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), was born of an idea coming from IBM, the company with the largest number of patents in the world.

Not business as usual

Wayne Balta, IBM’s Vice President, Corporate Environmental Affairs and Product Safety, explains that a year-long, in-house project examining energy and innovation led to the realization that many companies possess intellectual property that they perhaps did not even realize they had, and certainly nobody outside the company knew they had. Much of that technology could not only be used by other companies but used as a tool for further innovation. IBM approached the WBCSD with the idea, along with other companies they identified as having an environmental agenda and an open mind on intellectual property, and the commons came to fruition – initially with 31 patents pledged – in January 2008.

Mr. Balta says that, while it seems at odds with their competitive spirit for companies to effectively give away technology they have invested in developing, giving to the commons is not just an act of charity. “It’s one of those things where, at the beginning, when you create something that’s this different, you do not know definitively that it will deliver a specific, quantifiable business benefit.”

“We could just continue to possess these patents and it would be business as usual. Or, we could look at our patent portfolio and identify some that we’re not going to get the greatest value from through the traditional enforcement of patents,” Mr. Balta says. “If we tell the world about their existence, other people might come up with ideas nobody’s thought about so far. Some of the patents, for example, involve the accelerated clean-up of contaminants in the environment; there are other companies that could use that.”

“We know that if we don’t do this, it will be business as usual, and that stuff isn’t happening under business as usual.”

Ease of access

Contributors to the Eco-Patent Commons include the chemical company DuPont, Ricoh, engineering construction company Tasei Corporation, Xerox and Bosch. The patents pledged now number almost 100, some examples of which are technology for removing liquid contaminants from ground water, and a method for recycling optical disks.

Nokia has pledged a patented system for recycling old mobile phone handsets. Donal O’Connell, Nokia’s representative to the commons, says there are “softer benefits” to being part of the scheme, in addition to what might be gained technologically from being able to draw on others’ technology. Discussions between like-minded people and companies have come about, he says, creating a valuable network of expertise that is collectively raising the visibility and priority of environmental initiatives. Nokia’s phone engineers, for instance, have been studying Bosch’s automotive patents looking for environmental benefits that might have broader application.

Mr. O’Connell says that ensuring ease of access to the patents pledged was a key issue when creating the commons. Accordingly, individuals and companies do not need to register when they take or use patents. “We wanted something that was easy to administer, and easy for potential users to see what was available,” he says. “It was more important that we make it easy for others to use.”

Pool parties

The sharing of patented technology and, similarly, joint licensing schemes, are not in themselves new phenomena. One of the earliest instances was in the early 1850s, when various manufacturers of sewing machines spent years trying to sue each other over alleged infringements of their slightly varied designs. To overcome this, in 1856, four major producers, among them Singer, jointly formed the Sewing Machine Combination and pooled their patents. Manufacturers outside the pool had to get a licence to use patents in the pool and pay a fee for every sewing machine they built using the same patented technology.

In the early part of the 20th century, almost all U.S. aircraft manufacturers formed a patent pool because the ownership of vital patents for building planes had been held by just two companies, effectively blocking production at a time when, with war approaching, new aircraft were badly needed. Cooperation between technology companies has been common; in the 1920s, radio manufacturers standardized radio parts, airway frequency locations and television transmission standards. And, under a royalty-share agreement, electronics companies share compression technology to ensure a standardized system for compact discs and DVDs.

Shall we dance?

Maria Mendiluce, Energy Manager with the WBCSD, says the Eco-Patent Commons is the only initiative of its type in the world – one that unites businesses across a diverse range of sectors, with a purely environmental aim. The commons provides a forum for businesses to connect with and gain from the experience and innovation of those that have already succeeding in meeting certain environmental challenges.

While the commons has quickly flourished – from the original 31 patents at the time of launch to the 95 that had been pledged at the time this article was published – she cautions observers to expect long-term results from the program rather than a sudden manufacturing revolution. “We shouldn’t expect that because of the initiative, technology is going to dramatically change in the world, but there’s a lot of space to share information and knowledge in areas that will help climate change,” she says.

“The issue is very sensitive right now for a lot of companies, but we don’t think intellectual property rights are a barrier to innovation but in fact can help support it. The issue of climate change is important enough for us to concentrate on this issue.”

Mr. Balta says it’s probably no coincidence that most of the early contributors to the commons are technology companies. “One thing we learned is that it hasn’t necessarily been a common practice for companies to seek patents for their innovations,” he says. “I think the technology industry has been much more astute or even aggressive about IP patents than other industries. So, we’re finding like-minded, innovation-oriented companies, and we’re dancing with new dates.”


World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)
  • Patents are listed in a searchable website hosted by the WBCSD
  • The commons is open to businesses working in any industry, which can use pledged patents free of charge and without having to register or notify anyone of their use.
  • Businesses can pledge any patent that has either a direct environmental benefit or aids the environment in a less direct way, such as reducing energy consumption during production.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.