This year's World IP Day theme is 'innovate for a green future'. Read our thoughts on how IP rights, laws and systems are supporting the emergence of a green economy across the globe.
WIPO first introduced the annual World IP Day campaign in 2000, designating 26 April (the day on which the WIPO Convention came into force in 1970) as World IP Day, to raise public awareness about the role that intellectual property rights play in encouraging innovation and creativity and in supporting economic, social and cultural development. Sadly this year all the physical World IP Day events that were planned have had to be cancelled in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the day itself is a Sunday. However, it is hoped that its significance will not go unnoticed and that the substance of this year's theme "Innovate for a Green Future" looking at how IP rights can support the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy will continue to gain momentum as the weeks, months and years pass. [See WIPO website.]
IP rights might not be the first solution that springs to mind when considering how to tackle the global climate crisis, but they have a key role to play owing to their impact and influence on technological innovation and business, and in turn consumers. The recent surge in environmental consciousness and Greta Thunberg's emergence on the international scene was perhaps a factor in WIPO's decision to choose green IP as its theme for this year stating on its website that "World IP Day 2020 puts innovation – and the IP rights that support it – at the heart of efforts to create a green future".
In this article we take a brief snapshot of some of the ways in which IP rights, laws and systems are supporting the emergence of a green economy across the globe.
The very nature of the patent system, requiring the disclosure of the invention, assists in the dissemination of green technology, which is then accessible to all businesses and organisations including those in less developed countries. To interrogate such systems to find climate change technologies it is clearly important to have robust and easy to navigate databases and search facilities. Examples of improvements in this area include:
- The EPO's document tagging system enabling users to interrogate EPO databases to find climate change technologies, i.e. technologies directed to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, capturing greenhouse gases, generating energy from renewable sources and distributing energy more efficiently; and
- WIPO's own patent database, PATENTSCOPE, which allows users to search some 78 million patent documents free of charge.
The patent system is generally well place to support different types of business collaborations, as it has done so for many years in many different fields of technology. This includes R&D agreements with universities researching particular green initiatives, patent licensing and technology transfer agreements.
While patents protect the functionality of inventions, design rights also play a role in the development, commercialisation and increasing popularity of eco-friendly products and services. The form of protection does vary quite considerably across the world and includes registered and unregistered rights. However, it is clear that regardless of the location and scope of the right, design rights are being increasingly relied upon by businesses to protect their green products from fashion to furniture and other household items, as the demand for sustainable products continues to gather momentum, particularly from generations Y and Z - for example, an environmentally friendly central heating controller likely will have greater take-up if it looks 'cool'.
Choosing to register and use a trade mark with green associations (such as the addition of a prefix such as "eco", "enviro" or "green") can help to build up awareness of the sustainability aspects of a product or service, provided of course that it is used responsibly (and it complies with normal registrability requirements). Socially conscious brands can be a powerful influence in leading innovation and supporting the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy, the target of this year's World IP Day.
Trade marks and other identifiers
Environmental charities such as ClientEarth, WaterAid, and Woodland Trust use trade marks to promote their work, build environmental awareness and ensure that supporters and the general public are not mislead.
As well as traditional trade marks there are other types of identifiers which can assist in bolstering the green credentials of products/ services, including:
- Certification marks, which can help associations boost their environmental credentials and influence consumers in their purchasing choices. A certification trade mark indicates that the goods or services to which it is attached comply with certain standards or have certain characteristics. The FAIRTRADE mark, perhaps one of the world’s most widely recognised ethical certification labels, is used in over 50 countries and is a guarantee that the goods that bear it conform to Fairtrade standards, promoting sustainable production; and
- Geographical indications (GIs) and protected designations of origin (PDOs), which can also support the sustainable production of food and other products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation due to that origin. Colombian coffee and Darjeeling tea (India) are two of many hundreds of examples around the world. As well as offering consumers a guarantee of the authenticity of products and their origin, GIs and PDOs can play an important role in upholding sustainable production standards set by the producers that collectively own the rights.
Copyright law too can play an important role in transitioning to a green future. A simple illustration of this is Greta Thunberg's decision to donate to charity the royalties she receives from the sale of her book published in May 2019 consisting of a compilation of her speeches, No one is too small to make a difference. Other authors are choosing to share their works in other ways such as through the Creative Commons licensing scheme making their works more accessible to the general public, or are temporarily lifting usual restrictions as we have seen recently by a range of authors and organisations in the media during the Covid-19 crisis.
As for all IP rights, social values and public policy can to some extent be channelled into the copyright field through changes to the body of exceptions and limitations. For example, under copyright law those who produce original databases have exclusive rights in their work. This may create a situation in which researchers who need to mine the data in those collections end up potentially infringing copyright in those works. This is why various jurisdictions, including the EU through the latest Copyright Directive (due to be implemented in June 2021) have formally spelled out circumstances in which researchers may analyse text and data in digital form to generate, for example, information on climatic trends, weather patterns and other correlations without risk of copyright infringement.
What's the future of green IP?The above highlights demonstrate how IP rights and systems can support and promote the development of a green future and should not be merely seen as a barrier to this, as some critics would argue. As with IP rights in other fields, they are there to provide exclusivity for those who invest in R&D or creative endeavour and a vehicle by which such activities might be rewarded, without which much such investment would not occur.
There is undoubtedly much more that can be done through the IP laws and regimes across the world. Greater awareness of what is currently available is crucial, not just about the high profile initiatives hitting the headlines, but also incremental improvements such as the UK's Green Channel for patent applications and WIPO's online platform WIPO GREEN. (This was set up in 2013 to connect providers and seekers of environmentally friendly technologies and currently has more than 3,500 listed technologies, needs and experts, with over 100 partners ranging from SMEs to Fortune 500 companies.)
One of the advantages of IP law and the IP community over some of the other solutions to the enormity of the climate change problem is its international scope; while the type of rights, their scope and how they are enforced varies throughout the word, there is a certain consistency helped by the various international IP treaties and a certain shared purpose and values.
We have seen in recent weeks just how IP laws and rights-owners are working together across the world in response to the enormity of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is hoped that this collaboration and rapid response can be extended to climate change and go towards fulfilling WIPO's goal for World IP Day this year.
A version of the above article was originally posted by WIPR - World IP Day: how IP can go green
We are all navigating unchartered waters as business and society faces up to the impact of COVID-19. We very much hope you and your loved ones remain in good health.
Please be assured that Fieldfisher is continuing to work with clients to navigate COVID-19 related issues and on business as usual needs. Do get in touch with us if you would like to chat anything through.
Sign up to our email digest
Click to subscribe or manage your email preferences.