Prevent Patents Inhibiting Knowledge Diffusion For Green Technology, EU Told

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Stringent intellectual property rules could hamper the spread of technology needed to fight climate change, an advisor to European Union policymakers has warned.

The transfer of non-polluting technology from industrialised to developing countries is likely to be one of the key topics addressed when international negotiators meet in Copenhagen this December as part of efforts to fashion a successor to the Kyoto protocol, as the core United Nations accord aimed at addressing global warming is known.

Paul David, a member of the Knowledge for Growth (K4G) group, which counsels the European Commission on industrial innovation, appealed to the EU and US not to resort to litigation over patents relating to ‘green’ technology such as that used in generating renewable energy.

Arguing that patents can “inhibit” the spread of equipment to developing countries that are most affected by water shortages and other symptoms of climate change, he said: “What we need is the freer moving of technology knowledge.”

David, also a professor of economics at Stanford University in California, predicted that the scientific community has a “window” of only fifteen years to develop technologies for addressing climate change if emissions of carbon dioxide are to be stabilised by the middle of this century. Such stabilisation will be necessary, he said, if an increase in the earth’s temperature of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is to be averted.

Speaking at a Brussels conference on 25 June, David added: “We need to think seriously about global warming in the way that countries have previously thought about war.”

The K4G group was formed at the Commission’s behest in 2005 as part of its work towards the official objective of transforming the European Union into the world’s economic powerhouse by the end of this decade. Known as the ‘Lisbon strategy’, this goal was declared by EU governments at a summit in the Portuguese capital during 2000.

The Commission has viewed robust protection of IP rights as an essential element of its strategy. In its assessments of European innovation, it has used the number of patent applications for new inventions as one of the principal indicators of the success of scientific research, particularly that undertaken by universities.

Last year, the Commission noted that the number of applications made to the European Patent Office in Munich for higher education bodies represented just 10% of all applications made by the EU’s 27 countries. In 2003, for example, a total of 51,000 patent applications were made from the EU, of which 4,660 were from higher education bodies. Nonetheless, the number of higher education-linked patent applications made in the EU rose by 28% between 1994 and 2003.

Janez Potocnik, the European commissioner for scientific research, said that “successful management of intellectual property is a key issue” if the EU is to register economic growth in the future.

One component of the Lisbon strategy commits the EU’s governments to devoting 3% of their collective gross domestic product to research and development (R&D) by 2010. Although Potocnik conceded that this goal is unlikely to be attained, he argued that it would be wrong for EU governments or for the private sector to reduce its expenditure on innovation in response to the recession.

“History has shown us that investments have been made in innovation and research when the prevailing advice is that these are a luxury,” he said. “But these have proven to be anything but.”

Potocnik noted that Microsoft had increased its spending on research during the last quarter of 2008, despite having suffered significant losses in revenue. “Many times we have heard people talking about turning crisis into opportunity,” he added. “This has lost meaning under the tsunami of cliché. But it still has a grain of truth.

“Europe accounts for approximately one-quarter of (global) R&D spending. We need to increase these resources and make better use of them. This is the only way to get the maximum bang for our buck. In times of crisis, R&D spending should not be cut. It can create an immediate demand for high-skilled workers. But it is also an investment for the future that enables companies to emerge stronger when the upturn comes.”

Reinhilde Veugelers, an economics professor at Belgium’s University of Leuven, said that strong IP standards were one of the factors observed behind the successes of EU countries that had encountered growth before the world’s economy went into recession.

“Top performers” such as Ireland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic “did well” on a range of indicators such as macro-economic stability, efficient markets and high educational performance, along with having IP rules in place, she said. “The countries at the bottom – such as Romania and Bulgaria – scored very low on all these key drivers,” she added.

Luc Soete, director of the United Nations University-Maastricht Economic and Social Research and Training Centre on Innovation and Technology in the Netherlands, complained however that the Lisbon strategy has been too focused on “economic growth in a very narrow sense.”

Soete urged that the ‘Knowledge for Growth’ group should be transformed into a ‘knowledge for sustainable development’ one. Rather than examining how to perform better than competitors such as the US, it should study how knowledge and technology designed to reduce pollution can be spread in a way that best addresses the ecological woes besetting the planet, he suggested.

“We need to move away from the old obsession with technological competitiveness viewed through a very narrow framework,” he said. “The citizens in Europe, as well as those in the rest of the world, ultimately depend on knowledge diffusion.”

David Cronin may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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Comments

  1. wackes seppi says

    Extravagant reporting! Who is to believe that the European Union was “told” — not, say, advised — to prevent patents from inhibiting knowledge diffusion for green technology? It strains belief that this should be the key message from a “Brussels conference”, the details of which are witheld from the readership (the conference was on “S&T policy in times of crisis: Prospects for the knowledge-based economy”; for the programme, see http://kfgconference2009.teamwork.fr/frame.php?page=prog; for background, see http://ec.europa.eu/invest-in-research/monitoring/knowledge_en.htm; for another report on the event, see http://cordis.europa.eu/search/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.document&N_RCN=30955).

    And who is to be fooled by the reference to Paul David as an advisor to European Union policy-makers (which he is not individually) and a member of the Knowledge for Growth (K4G) group and the omission of that reference for both Reinhilde Veugelers and Luc Soete? For the list of K4G members, see http://ec.europa.eu/invest-in-research/pdf/download_en/list_of_members.pdf; and, by the way, the K4G is an advisory body to Commissioner Potočnik and not the entire European Commission as stated in the “report”. The omission my have been deliberate or accidental, but neither hypothesis is charitable.

    And why was the “story” of David given such prominence over the points from three other speakers (plus others who went unreported)? We surely won’t venture that it is because the “story” was the most ludicrous. For, for instance, anyone who has completed reading of Chapter One of “Patents for Dummies” knows that it is a primary function of patents to promote – not inhibit – knowledge diffusion. Or anyone who has some understanding of society and economics knows that it is not countries, but economic actors, who litigate over patents.

    So is it because it makes a catchy headline or because it fits a cause surreptitiously propagated?

    This is a question that warrants serious consideration. Previous pieces from Brussels indeed went along the same lines. Consider for instance “EU Stakeholders Debate Copyright, Access And Artists In Digital Age” of 24 April 2009: this time, the headline was fairly banal, although overstretched for an event organised within the framework of European Year of Creativity and Innovation 2009, with a fairly small attendance and without any Commissioner. The piece started with “Copyright should be abolished because it undermines cultural diversity, a Brussels conference has been told”.

    This raises two questions. Firstly, as stated in the piece, the above quotation was (correctly) summarising Dutch academic Joost Smiers, co-author of the book Imagine! No Copyright. Any one interested in his thesis and in its links with the real world, and hence the merits of the thesis, should look up a two and a half page summary of the book at http://www.recursosculturales.com.ar/documentos/publicaciones/Imagine.doc.

    Secondly, the above quotation appears in the report as the key lesson to be drawn from the event. Any one interested in what really happened in that meeting, and hence in the truthfulness of the report, should go to http://www.goethe.de/ins/be/bru/pro/download/Conference_Report%20EN.pdf.

    The incontrovertible conclusion is that the reporting style and content is surely fine for a tabloid, not for a medium that endeavours to abide by the highest standards of journalism and influences the agendas of debates on intellectual property.

  2. says

    Thank you for the feedback, it is appreciated, and for the links to the events, we do try to include them when we have them. Nothing “surreptitious” or “incontrovertible” about it, just good writing on some of the interesting aspects of the events. William New, Editor

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