You might already know about GreenXchange. It’s a specialized sort of commons specifically for innovations (or yet to be applied innovations) for environmental sustainability. For now, that means an on-line space to post patents and supporting materials under one of three pledges.
Where many are familiar with Creative Commons providing the legal structures and tools to help people transparently promise to others restrictions or non-restrictions on using content like text or visuals, GreenXchange facilitates the sharing of patents by businesses and other holders in a similar, tailored way. And, in fact, Creative Commons is a partner.
It started as an idea a few years ago at the World Economic Forum and gradually became a reality through high-profile companies including Nike, Best Buy, and Yahoo! There was coverage back then, but now, with the first site reaching age one, and an improved site soon to be made more public, it’s a good time to check in. I spoke with Charlie Brown, director, of the GreenXchange.
GreenXchange seeks to build on two distinct tracks of thinking: the benefits of “network based business models” and the increasing realization that many companies are (vulnerably) reliant on natural resources. These resources are, or potentially could become, scarce to the point where the impact on business is profound.
In many ways this effort could be seen as hedging for the future, Charlie said, when those scarce resources may spur government action that probably won’t be in line with an individual company’s interests.
We discussed how the notion is not without precedent, with the U.S. government stepping in to force the duopoly of the initial aircraft industry (which included the Wright brothers) to license their innovations for airplane production desperately needed for WWI. The GreenXchange, then, can also be viewed as pro-active self-regulation.
We’ve seen more contemporary exclusive patent-pools before, and those that function more along the lines of a commons. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development began a very similar project for sustainability in 2008, called the Eco-Patent Commons.
So, what’s going on here, and how many enviro-patent commons do we need?
In short, people are quick to use the label of commons, for anything that appears to be opening up previously closed property. But, labeling isn’t enough. And that’s where I think GreenXchange has the potential to be different.
Eco-patent commons, for example, is really just a lookup table that links to the patent offices where the invention is recorded. GreenXchange provides actual tools for, well, exchange, and the globally legally-vetted license structures to facilitate sharing.
There are three patent pledges: 1) research non-exempt (royalty-free, but improvements cannot be patented for commercial use), 2) standard (royalty-free and commercial use), and 3) standardPLUS (requires nominal payment or has industry exclusions).
This commons now has a set of guiding policies and infrastructure that didn’t exist before. Through simple language and structures, with the potential for businesses to choose more fine grain between keep it all, or give it all away, we should see more activity.
Having an overarching mission, or purpose, for the commons is of course important, and whether its defending GNU/Linux or global diseases, most at least have a clearly articulated scope. But, the activities within that commons seem to stop short.
GreenXchange, Charlie said, “...is not really about exchanging pieces of paper, but about building collaborative relationships.”
And that’s probably the biggest difference. Commons, in the physical environment sense, have little to to do with the actual resources, but center on the institutions, culture, and norms of the people stewarding those resources.
“At the end of the day it’s community management. The idea that someone used to be a manager of some specific asset is shifting.” Now it’s important to “...manage access to and facilitation of community.”
To that end, there’s an essential prep process for bringing on members.
“We ask them, what happens when a hundred people license this? Now you’re in an opportunity to think how am I leveraging these 100 people,” which in turn “...forces people to be really selective about what patents to put in.”
Connecting people through events, beyond the one-to-one exchange on-line when a patent is requested, is also a key tactic. In January, they’re bringing together several companies in the footwear industry to get things moving around using and improving Nike’s environmentally preferred rubber.
And, more recently GreenXchange has dug into spreading research and tools, like indices for measuring sustainability, that don’t necessarily belong on a patent pledge.
The main question for Charlie is how does a company turn its intellectual property management around, so that it “...turns into a tool for inclusion rather than exclusion.”
That’s the right idea. The commons is broader and not about the patent, which at the end of the day in this case is just a tool used toward the goal of promoting sustainability.
No doubt there’s room for improvement and maturation. Right now there are 555 pledges, nearly 400 of which are from Nike alone. Still, it’s only been a year and the foundation that’s been set appears to be on the right track.