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Thursday, 10 September 2009

Climate, carbon, collaboration ...

The IPKat has been reading a fascinating press release from the UK's Intellectual Property Office on the subject of climate change. It runs like this:

"The development and production of new low carbon technologies is important in the global effort to tackle climate change [Agreed]. Key to this effort is the management of the intellectual property emerging from joint work [This already begs the question because it assumes that the emergent research results will be (i) protectable and (ii) actually protected. Some souls have argued that planet-saving innovations should be freed from the restrictive shackles of IP rights for the sake of the common good].

Talks in Beijing on Tuesday hosted by UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China discussed the creation of a business and university friendly framework that will benefit both the UK and China. Although working together and sharing knowledge is an important way of promoting innovation, the management of intellectual property can sometimes be a barrier to this joint work. An agreement is therefore needed to help decide where IP rights should lie in joint work between UK and Chinese businesses and research organisations [This could be a great way of testing different IP management models: the efficacy of R&D under an agreed Sino-British framework could be tested against 'free range' uncontrolled collaborative research].

Tuesday’s meeting is seen as a first step towards agreeing this process. At the workshop participants discussed:

* The benefits of establishing a framework for managing IP in UK-China joint research and development [but first you have to identify the criteria for determining what is a benefit and the relative importance of different ones: saving the environment, making money, raising the level of technical cooperation between institutions etc ...];
* The differences between domestic agreements and cross-border agreements, particularly with respect to different legal frameworks [The IPKat would welcome expansion of this point];
* Why establishing a framework for IP management will be particularly important for R&D projects on low carbon innovations [... and not other types of projects, presumably?].
Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, Richard Lambert, who pioneered the development of model agreements in the UK gave the keynote speech at the workshop. He said:

"Some of the best ideas for tackling climate change and other major challenges facing the world today are going to come out of collaborative work between business and universities. Having model IP agreements and guidance available can significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the collaboration process [a model IP agreement, properly devised and utilised, can be very helpful; but one has to avoid the problems of (i) the model becoming a straitjacket and (ii) insufficiently flexible means of making running changes in the light of experience and project-specific considerations]. It has worked well in the UK -- now the next step is to share that experience internationally, and what better place to start than with China." [er, the United States, Japan, Germany ...?]

Peter Holland, International Director, IPO said:

"Evidence suggests that managing and reaching agreement in IP ownership and access is difficult in all industry sectors [That, says the IPKat, is why you need IP lawyers ...]. This means that collaborative projects can take a long time to set up or simply never happen [... and we can blame that on the collaborating parties]. The provision of a framework for IP management looks to encourage and support more collaboration. It could also dramatically reduce the transaction costs involved in establishing such agreements and we hope this increases technology diffusion".

Lu Guoliang, Director General, International Cooperation Department, said:

"It’s very important to provide a platform for industry and the academic sector from both China and UK to discuss and exchange views on collaborative research and development. Especially against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, how to establish and improve an effective system to promote IP creation and transfer, is a very important issue" [Doesn't the existing system have any merits? Not that it can't be improved, of course]. ...
The UK is a key market for China and the UK is China’s largest EU investor [Ah, of course -- the motive!]. In 2008 China/UK trade was worth over £25 billion [To whom? How much British money has gone in? And how much has come out again? Oh, the Kat forgot -- you're not allowed to ask that question]. To be successful, it is vital that companies and universities understand the importance of protecting and exploiting their ideas in a key high growth market such as China.

The workshop will be followed up with further working level activities to lay down the framework for IP management".
China Cat here
Climate in China here (in case you're planning a trip)
Chinese Carbon here
3rd Annual Carbon Trade China Conference here


Mark Anderson said...

I am left wondering where is the elephant in the room. Is this just a general exchange of views - worthy no doubt but hardly newsworthy - or are there some specific (but unstated) UK objectives? Eg (speculating wildly):

1. To encourage China to develop its IP laws and make them enforceable against Govt institutions such as universities?
2. To make it part of Chinese Govt policy to encourage international scientific collaborations?
3. To educate Chinese officials about the benefits of international R&D collaboration (ie what the benefits are, Mr Kat, your criticism of the reference to benefits in the press release seems picky in the extreme) and how such collaborations might be managed. For instance, who would file patents and where, and why spending money on this might, after analysis of the individual case, be a good thing to do.

Richard Lambert's keynote speech (as outlined in your report of the press release) seems to be on a slightly different subject - using template agreements for university:industry R&D contracts. He and the IPO have a vested interest in saying that these are a good thing, as they drove the development of the Lambert agreements. I don't disagree with their sentiments, but I agree with you that the relevance of this bit to China is difficult to see, except in the most general sense that templates can be useful in any country.

I suspect the real value (yes, Kat, I am making an assumption here, and using a cliche - how does one do accents on blogs? my spellchecker suggests cloche) of this exercise will be in the "further working level activities to lay down the framework for IP management".

Japser said...

I have negotiated some Joint Development Agreements with government. A challenging experience, not only because the negotations weren't in my mother tongue. What I learned there was that there is little flexibility and even more important, little vision and strategy on IP matters (so no, it wasn't the US or China).

But the first question that arises here is WHY should that IP be protected? And another question is WHY should any IP be enforced later on?
In particular governments are moaning about reduction CO2 emission, as they believe it is an important factor in global warming. So if those governments want (their) people to work on reduction of CO2 emission, those governments would do better by making available all the results for free.

The only reason for actually protecting the IP, in view of the Kyoto etc. objectives, is to set up an open IP licensing model like the General Public Licence: you can use our IP for further development, provided you give out free licences under patents for inventions originating from such further development.

Which, again, from a legal perspective, may create issues to what extent such further development would be covered by those government patents.... I have seen issues there before...

Anonymous said...


The WHY of patenting is not just rewarding the inventor; more importantly its about getting investment into development. The free information of which you speak will not be fully worked out viable commercial products and systems - these come at a cost. Real investors in new technology ask whether it is protected because they know that reduces their risk.

If you hand out free information hand out some free money to go with it!

twr57 said...

To tackle climate change we need as many innovations as possible. Most of them will fail, but the more that are produced, the better the chances of getting ones that succeed.

This is not research that can be left to Government bodies. Such bodies are spending public money, and it is important not to be seen to waste it. So only sensible peer-reviewed projects can be undertaken - anything perceived as too risky won't be funded. Once research is under way, the rewards for success do not compensate the risks of failure. To put it crudely, since success is uncertain, the priority may not be success, but to have a good excuse in case you fail.

If, however, private companies can be persuaded to invest, things are different. They are spending their own money - if they waste it, that's their lookout. But if they come up with something useful, there can be real rewards for success. The company shares the benefits of its success with society as a whole.

However, there are proposals before the coming Climate Change conference (Denmark, December) either to make all such inventions unpatentable, or oblige them to be licensed compulsorily. That would greatly reduce the incentive for private companies to invest. It would then make much more commercial sense to wait and see what your competitors' research came up with, and copy whatever proved successful in the market. That would be sad. Diversity in innovation is at least as important as diversity in other areas.

Japser said...

@ anonymous:
Having worked with a multinational making hundreds of millions of Euros a year on patents, I know you're right. For private companies, that is.

However, this article relates to cooperation between universities. That's something different. That's government stuff. If the (or any) government is convinced that global warming can be beaten by CO2 reduction and the emission of CO2 should therefore be reduced, here's an interesting opportunity: offer free patent licences to the private sector - in return for free licences on their (dependent, whatever that may mean) patents.

Second, I do not agree with your point "If you hand out free information hand out some free money to go with it!". Ever heard of Open Source Software? True, such system will not work everywhere. But your point doesn't either.

And the idea on compulsory licences as indicated by twr57 worry me as, indeed, this will remove an important incentive for companies to invest. Then again, noticing that compulsory licensing has been vastly limited over the past years (e.g. by virtue of TRIPs), I am not worried at all at such proposals will probably never make it.

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