Joff Wild

Environmentally-friendly technology is rapidly emerging as the latest patent pressure point and, with the effects of global warming become ever-more apparent, it is not going to go away. Companies and other rights owners operating in this area – and there are an awful lot of them, including car manufacturers and oil companies, as well as the more obvious candidates such as turbine manufacturers – are going to have to think very carefully about how they handle the criticisms and queries that will increasingly come their way. If they get things wrong, then it could spell major trouble for them.

Just this week, there have been calls from both China and Europe to improve access to energy-saving technology. The costs associated with its transfer are currently too high, it is being claimed, which means that products being manufactured in the developing world are not as green as they could be. Of course, if true this not only affects people living in developing countries, but all of us.

Global warming knows no boundaries – factories and cars that release carbon dioxide into the air in the US or India cause potential harm not just to the citizens of those countries, but also to those of us who live in Europe, or Africa or Latin America. Companies that own patents covering technologies that can reduce the impact of such fumes but which are unwilling to license what they have, or charge what are perceived as prohibitory royalty rates, will very quickly find they become the targets of serious criticism that makes the flak received by big pharma seem like nothing in comparison.

As I said last year when writing about the UK’s Stern Report, it is surely in their best interests for companies themselves to recognise the global significance of their technologies and to develop IP strategies that reflect this fact. If they do not, they can be absolutely certain that governments will do it for them with consequences that they are bound not to like. For their part, however, legislators and campaigners should recognise – as did Nicholas Stern – that without strong IP there is much less incentive for anyone to invest the sums necessary to do R&D in the environmental field, meaning that potentially breakthrough products will be far slower to arrive or may not ever appear. In short, we need everyone to behave like grown-ups. Which is why I am now feeling a little bit depressed!