Green Tech and IP

Posted on November 8th, 2009 by


Green Tech and IP

The debate between the developed world and the developing world about who should do what to mitigate climate change is taking an interesting path.

Intellectual property laws are rearing their heads behind the scenes, and the question is how they should apply to ‘green technologies’.  It’s also a question of what differences there should be between the way IP law applies to the developed and developing worlds.

It’s a debate which has been happening in other areas for decades.  Drug companies and western governments have been accused of holding back treatments from the developing world to protect their patent rights.  The argument goes that by vigorously protecting patents in drugs such as anti-retrovirals, and refusing to allow generic versions to be produced, they are refusing care to millions of people.

Does the same argument apply over green technology as well?

The Intellectual Property Watch blog thinks it might:

The position of the Group of 77 plus China is fixed on saying that IP is important and represents a barrier to technology transfer, some delegates said. For developed countries, IP rights are not seen as preventing technology transfer but rather providing incentives for innovation.

In other words, developing countries are arguing that they need access to green technologies (presumably at cheap rates) if they are to control greenhouse emissions.  Developed countries (who are generally responsible for inventing the technology and who stand to gain from the Intellectual property in it) say that without them having strong rights to charge for their inventions, the inventions simply won’t be made.

The presence of China amongst the Group of 77 certainly complicates things – no doubt the US and EU will be rather sceptical of China crying poor over green technology, but it’s a very interesting source of debate.

When boiled down into brutal terms, it’s rather different from the debates about drugs.  In the realpolitik of trade debates, countries which hold IP rights can afford to sit by and do nothing about providing drugs to the developing world – they feel they have nothing to gain on the balance sheet from helping.

But in the case of climate change, the effects of pollution in the developing world have an impact on the rest of the world – it’s a problem which doesn’t respect national borders, and everyone has an equal interest in access to green technology being as widespread as possible.

Let’s hope that important debates like these are had out in the open and get some media coverage, instead of the same old arid talk about whose job it is to fix the climate.

And after such an appalling rehearsal with the drugs debate, let’s just hope the west gets the balance right this time around.

Image from tim tolle on Flickr.