The term "open patents" refers to the system of open patent licensing, which is when a patent owner gives licensing permission to a third party for the patented product. By sharing licensing rights (sometimes at no charge), the system is designed to foster innovation and aid companies in drawing in talented employees.

Patents and Future Sustainability

By the year 2050, if the world's population reaches its estimated 9.7 billion, people will need innovations that make full use of the planet's environmental and human resources. Certain sectors — water, energy, transport, and agriculture — are facing pressure to move into more sustainable consumption and production methods. Some barriers stand in the way of this necessary sustainability.

One such barrier lies in how ideas and inventions are managed in relation to creation and ownership. By taking a protective approach to intellectual property, existing technologies are protected and prolonged, and innovators enjoy the chance to benefit financially from their inventions. This protective approach makes it more difficult for people to develop and adopt newer, more sustainable technologies. There are methods being used now that seek to end the status quo and make key sectors develop systems that are more sustainable.

Tesla's Open Patent Approach

The electric automaker Tesla has been taking part in sustainability. In 2014, the company made the shocking announcement that it was taking part in the open source movement. It would start giving away patents at no charge.

Initially, Tesla had a portfolio that protected the company's technology. Tesla had concerns that once other, more established carmakers ramped up their electric car production efforts, it would be overwhelmed. This never actually happened. Instead, the electric car market stagnated at fewer than one percent of total car sales. Tesla then amended its strategy — instead of attempting to prevent other manufacturers from building electric cars, it focused on encouraging them into the electric vehicle space.

Part of Tesla's motivation was the idea that if there are more electric cars, there will be an increase in battery recharging stations. That development would increase the visibility of electric cars, making them more accepted and conventional. Tesla believes the open intellectual property strategy strengthens the company's position by increasing the market devoted to electric vehicles. It expects that its share of the total automotive market will grow as a result.

How Open Patents Benefit Society

When intellectual property is carefully managed by companies in this way, it can lead to support of the transition to sustainability in other industries as well.

Energy supply is facing some of the following problems: 

  • Air pollution 
  • Natural resource depletion 
  • Greenhouse gas emissions 
  • Security of the supply 
  • Nuclear risks

The water supply sector faces restrictions due to the following: 

  • Pollutants 
  • Water scarcity 
  • Extreme environmental events (including the cost of supplying water to poor and remote communities)

The agri-food sector is facing pressure to increase production of food in sustainable ways and address the problem of malnutrition in poor locales.

In order to find a way to address these problems, it's essential to have new knowledge and the innovations that inevitably follow. Intellectual property either inhibits or helps.

When the ownership of intellectual property is fragmented, it can cause a decrease in technology innovation. This is the case in the electronics industry when multiple entities hold complementary patents. Instead of doing this, companies can open up their innovation processes and stop jealously guarding their technology, which only prolongs the lifecycle of existing technology.

By making such a change, companies may engage in the type of knowledge sharing that fosters accelerated cycles of innovation as well as a faster uptake of sustainable alternatives throughout an industry, which is what Tesla was trying to do with the electric car market.

Taking part in the “open-IP” system is familiar to the healthcare (with the Medicine Patent Pool) and software industries. This open approach has made lifesaving medicines accessible to many people, especially in developing areas of the world.

The open patent approach is designed to advance technology for everyone in an effort to benefit society as a whole. When companies participate in open patent licensing, they open the doors for increased sustainability and innovation, which can help people around the world.

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