Eco-Patent Commons explains its reason for being

Typically, a company will take whatever steps necessary to protect one of its patents from falling into the hands of a competitor. So the idea of a company sharing its patents with other companies goes against conventional wisdom.

But that’s what a group of technology companies is doing to encourage the development of environmentally friendly technologies.

Earlier this month, IBM, Nokia Corp., Sony Corp. and Pitney Bowes Inc. announced that they had donated patents to the Eco-Patent Commons, an organization set up to share patents for technology with environmental benefits.

The Eco-Patent Commons will be administered by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a group that brings together CEOs in various industries, including cement, electrical utilities, timber, mining and transport. The council is hoping other companies will follow suit and donate environmentally friendly patents.

Currently the patents pledged to the commons cover fields such as wastewater treatment, air purification, cell phone recycling and efforts to reduce printer ink consumption. IBM has pledged 27 patents, Pitney Bowes, two, and Nokia and Sony one each.

Executives at several of the companies said the idea is to make the patents available for free to promote innovation that can benefit the environment.

“Environmental activities have for some years now been a core part of the way Nokia does business and as such we very much support this initiative,” said Donal O’Connell, Nokia’s director of intellectual property, in an e-mail. “Companies can’t address these kinds of issues alone. We hope this project will help us stimulate and develop innovative new ideas that can be used both within our own business but also more broadly to drive environmental improvements.”

O’Connell said Nokia started by pledging a patent in recycling because the company believes there is a lot of potential to innovate in that area. The patent outlines how to re-use the computing power from unwanted mobile phones and transform that power into other electronic items such as data monitoring devices, cameras or other electronic items that would be useful for people, he said, adding that the devices would not have cellular capability.

The patent provides methods for re-using unwanted mobile phones by transforming them into other electronic devices, such as clocks, calculators, PDAs, and other kinds of handhelds, he said. However, the devices would not have cellular capability.

“For example, the computing components and parts, such as displays, could be used to make devices that can capture, measure or monitor data,” he said. “This could be used in a variety of different ways, for example, to record information about the local environment, monitor security, or in educational projects. It could also be used to create devices that record people’s activities, such as sports, or remind them of medical or health needs.”

Manny Schecter, associate general counsel for intellectual property law at IBM, said traditionally, patents have been used as “tools of exclusion” to give benefits to inventors or to the companies where the inventors work. He said when a company pledges patents, in a sense it is turning the patent system upside down.

“Instead of using a patent as a tool of exclusion [we’re] using it as a tool of inclusion or at least an incentive to be included,” Schecter said. “We would say that no one has really done this before. It’s a rather recent phenomenon. And this is the first of its kind that I’m aware of in the environmental space.”

Schecter said sharing environmentally friendly patents is good for the community and it’s important to get other companies to do their part. He said part of the idea is to get organizations to help promote the resolution of environmental issues by enabling more collaborative innovation around those issues.

In general, many of the patents that IBM is pledging to the Eco-Patent Commons originated from the company’s semiconductor business, he said. Some of the donated patents are specific to the chip manufacturing process, but others can potentially be applied to a variety of processes, products and industries, Schecter said. They have the potential to preserve trees, protect water and soil, conserve fossil fuels and improve air quality, he said.

One patent IBM donated is the “Method and apparatus for ozone generation and surface treatment.”

Originally developed to clean semiconductors, the process can be used during the manufacturing cycle to more safely and efficiently clean many surfaces, such as the glass used for flat television screens, eyeglasses, camera optics and contact lenses, according to IBM. The method, which requires no solvents or waste treatment and disposal, can potentially be used for sterilizing stainless steel surgical equipment, the company said.

Pitney Bowes said it is participating because the Eco-Patent Commons goes hand-in-hand with the company’s history as an environmental leader and because of its desire to advance its active participation in corporate citizenship and sustainability, said Paul Robbertz, vice president of environment health and safety at Pitney Bowes.

Robbertz said the commons can be the catalyst for further innovation and new opportunities. “You’re breaking down business barriers,” he said. “And the [Eco-Patent Commons] has the opportunity to establish or develop revolutionary change when it comes to areas where we can demonstrate environmental stewardship and sustainability and protect the environment. Those things happen when multiple parties and stakeholders are working together, not when we’re working by ourselves.”

One of the patents donated by Pitney Bowes involves a variable maintenance algorithm for cleaning ink jets that takes into account the printer’s use patterns as a way to save on ink.