IP implications for the transition to a Low-carbon economy and society

Success redefined: what is this all about? (up)

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is not the only invisible thing we may have to curb if we are serious about tackling Climate Change. While Intellectual Property is regarded by many money and policy makers as ‘crucial’ in securing the creativity flow and economic incentives that encourage innovation in clean technologies (see Gowers Review on IP), reducing our Carbon Footprint seems a highly unlikely enterprise in the absence of substantial cutbacks in our consumption appetite for thousands of invisible, expensive and frequently polluting copyright and patent-dependent products and services. Arguably, many of these owe their existence and big push into otherwise inexistent markets to IP regimes (for an example try this).

U.S. ‘Intellectual Property’ at the beginning of the twenty-first century is worth between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion USD, equivalent to about 45 percent of U.S. GDP and greater than the GDP of any other nation in the world (Shapiro & Hassett, 2005). U.S. Ecological Footprint in planet-equivalents is 5.3 (i.e. the number of Earths it would take to support humanity’s footprint if everyone had an average American lifestyle) (Global-Footprint-Network, 2006) . If this numbers are correct, Intellectual Property embedded in most goods and services (copyrights, patents, trademarks and other forms of state-granted commercial monopolies) may be accountable for nearly 2.12 planet overshot equivalents. This in turn is important, in the next 50 years the world population will increase from an estimated 6.3 billion people to 8 or 9 billion, during that same period, world GDP is projected to increase from 33 trillion to 140 trillion USD, a factor of more than four (Wold-Bank, 2004) . This means major stress on ecological systems will come from an increasing demand for goods and services because of economic growth, not population growth.

For good or for bad, after much cultural inner search and decades of social movements of all kinds, it is Consumer Society that seems finally under the political spotlight. In case things weren’t challenging enough already, IP is considered the backdrop of employment policy at a time when technology is noisily disrupting and making irrelevant many IP regimes. This is why, in the face of human-induced Climate Change, Intellectual Monopolies, more frequently known as Intellectual Property rights and licenses (IP) deserve a cool and closer look indeed. The question of course is why? what exactly does intellectual property, copyrights, patents and trademarks have to do with Carbon Footprints and environmental sustainability?

Cultural exchanges are and have always been crucial to the evolution of vigorous societies, however just as the notion of ‘food miles’ has entered the public domain and the media making us aware of the distance food travels from field to plate, and of its associated carbon footprints (despite DEFRA’s statement regarding its inadequacy as a sustainability indicator), consumers are increasingly in need of a comparable type of ‘geographical indication concept’ applicable to the consumption of large amounts of monopolistic intellectual property.

This kind of property is embedded in commercial ideas, services and ‘experiences’, from lipstick patents to expensive entertainment. If we pay close attention to some of the notions about Sustainable Knowledge circulating for the last three decades, they make explicit the importance of recombining scientific ‘universal’ knowledge with local lay-knowledge. With remarkable exceptions, Intellectual Property operates exactly the opposite process. Corporate IP right holders typically seek global markets as shown in maps above, sometimes benefiting them but frequently also disrupting local cultures and economies, creating patterns of consumption and social behaviour that have already reached well beyond the threshold of local and global unsustainability. In the face of potential regional or even global environmental or financial emergency, drastic measures would most likely be deemed necessary to implement expeditiously, with or without economic incentives for IP holders.

At issue is not just the referred cultural aspects or disruptions but the fact that commercial advantages are typically seized remotely, in complete absence of any direct human interaction or exchange between A (the producer) and B (the consumer) of an IP-based product or service. In other words, someone can license a patent or a copyright to hundreds, thousands or millions of people without ever exchanging anything other than virtual money at a distance. This should not be a problem if the benefits outgrew the damages. Unfortunately, most of the times they don’t. It has been argued a number of times that the socially optimal amount of IP protection decreases (frequently down to zero) as the scale of the market increases (Boldrin and Levine 2005). Such seems to be the complex nature of what could be called, for the lack of a better term, ‘IP miles’.

Sustainable solutions to major environmental problems need to be local too and they can’t be just the result of patentable ‘techno-fixes’. What would be the implications of reducing our ‘IP miles’? how would they guarantee sustainability? Would this be pointing at an extra dimension about physical travel we haven’t yet considered? Perhaps. The Soil Association for instance is currently leading a discussion on the importance of air freight for the development of organic markets. So not just IP but matter, matters.

Taking our carbon footprints seriously means putting difficult approaches into practice. Quite correctly if the environmental movement has criticized for decades the ‘economic externalities’ of the industrial age (in the form of environmental service degradation), it should not be impossible to imagine the existence of a large amount of high-social-value-knowledge becoming an externality in the information age (this means free of charge). In fact it already is in quite contrasting ways, from piracy and biopiracy, to public domain and fair share practice regimes and recognition. Intellectual Property and industrial CO2 emissions were born at about the same time, right before the Industrial Revolution; and like car dependency, making ourselves more aware of our copyright and patent dependencies is crucial in understanding the way we pretend to reorganise ourselves to reduce our Carbon Footprint and live sustainably. To live ‘sustainably’ roughly means being able to share our lives and the Earth with hedgehogs and not just with Ipods. Find out more about our particular framing of sustainable development here.

Like CO2, it is easier to recognize the presence of copyrights and patents by their tremendous impact in the way we live. But unlike CO2 we can also recognize them by the way they empty our pockets without necessarily always leaving us with the impression of having done anything particularly fulfilling or that enhances our ability to enjoy life. No wonder why people have creatively rebelled against consumption in many parts of the world already. The market value of a single Walt Disney song-copyright or a ‘Post-it’ patent would be enough to sustain generations of families living in affluence. No wonder either why opportunists everywhere, but mostly in the US, crave the ownership of all sorts of amusingly stupid patents and copyrights. Meanwhile, average global consumers spend already and equal or higher proportion of their incomes in digital entertainment and high-tech gadgets than in the fulfilment of basic material needs and well being.

So instead of playing just chess, peer-pressure commands us to now play Chess-Master 11th edition. Instead of going peacefully to heaven like mortals do after certain age, we must now toy with the idea of extending our retirement pensions for several decades more as new patented life-expanding pills are put into the market (never mind the newly sub-employed). This is only reasonable when being poor for some often means not having money to take mid-week holidays in another continent.

So what’s wrong then with copyrights and patents, aren’t they just a necessary evil to keep the economy going? (up)

When it comes to sustainability analysis and reducing our carbon footprint, the problem with copyrights and patents is that they widen up the economic price-gap between our stuff and nature’s stuff without any point of reference, sense of direction or balance criterion. Our ‘intellectual property monopolies’ seduce us into believing anything we do can only be more precious than anything the ecosystems are able to provide. In other words, nature is cheap, we are infinitely expensive. On this regard, an honest economist would say that the balance between man-made capital and natural-capital is lost in the confusing and pervasive presense of copyright and patent monopoly regimes. From this state of affairs to climate change there is only one step.

Some powerful groups and individuals, including Exxon-Valdez and the president of the United States (what’s his name?) have shown deliberate confusion about the science of climate change refusing to accept the case for taking urgent action to cut emissions, let alone discussing distant and neglected issues such as the effect intellectual property regimes have in the ecosystem’s economy in coevolutionary terms. Technology might be cool, but the fact that many citizens in the world are willing to risk their health, personal finances and quality of life for the sake of unrestrained consumption of frequently low-quality licensed entertainment may be signalling already a fundamental mistake in the way organisations and individuals are pretending to reduce Carbon Footprints and lead sustainable happy existances amongst trees full of apples. Not genetically-modified-value-added-patented-apples, just apples. Let alone fair trade apples and world poverty. (Interesting things to look at are the buy-nothing-day campaign and the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index to name but two).

Following the argument of economists Boldrin and Levine in their forthcoming book, (‘Against Intellectual Monopoly’- Cambridge University Press) monopolistic copyrights and patents ‘are not the cause of innovation but an unwelcome consequence of it’. The problem, according to them, is not really the ownership and sale of intangible works; the real problem with so-called ‘Intellectual Property Rights’ seems to be that they have come to mean not only the right to own and sell ideas but also the right to monopolize, regulate and criminalize their use. From a ‘business as usual point of view’ this is actually OK, but from the point of view of what this does to basic human liberties, let alone sustainability, it is actually not OK. If someone sells us a glass of milk (or an apple) nothing will stop us really from doing with that milk whatever we want to do with it (cheese, yogurt, toffee). Copyright and patent owners are being legally endowed now to do just that, effectively turning honest people into criminals. Would this may one day include grandma making cheese cake? People are nowadays being allowed to patent things such as ‘a way for a child to swing in a public playground’ (Pat No. 638227), the ‘Basmati Rice’ (Pat No. 5663484) and ‘a sandwich in a luchbox’ (Pat No. 4879125), so let’s just hope for the best. Because it is getting chronic it is no surprise to see many organisations like the Center for the Study of the Public Domain and the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK pointing at the urgent necessity for Public Domain Watchdogs. To see how the public domain is dissapearing have a look at this as well as this. For a creative way to represent this problem as well as the meaning of ‘fair use’ check this video.

To make a long story short, in the face of climate change, copyright and patent monopolies do not necessarily play an overall useful role. It could actually be a very negative one indeed, affecting businesses, people’s quality of life and the climate even further, most of the times in ways that are too complicated and tricky for us to be easily aware of. For example, are we really in a position nowadays to say that phenomena like obesity has absolutely nothing to do with climate change? In truth, we are now not only producing more CO2 than the world can cope with but also feeding our livelihoods and purchasing power to the very expensive intellectual monopolies over technology and entertainment that keep us functionally irresponsible most of the time, unable to make more significant changes personally and collectivelly. Cutting the CO2 emissions we are each responsible for will not be an easy thing, but we have to be creative and positive about it and have as much fun as we can. See cool video about it here.

Besides serving the purpose of rewarding thousands of laboratorists, celebrities, ICT technicians, lawyers and other astonishingly creative people (unlike Beethoven, Leonardo Da Vinci, Newton and guys like that), most of the economic wealth our IP dependency mobilizes goes to the same global firms apparently responsible for keeping people around the world locked into lifestyles and consumer behaviour that are causing the planet’s climate to change. Sometimes abusing the media to successfully blackmail people’s emotional counciousness with what seem to be angelic marketing messages about morally binding things such as ‘AIDS and cancer research’, ‘clean-biotech innovation’ and ‘keeping creative industries alive’ world monopolies over copyrights and patents are able to seize extravagantly unbounded amounts of cash. Thus retarding small businesses solutions and innovations to face the urban, cultural, and environmental challenges of the 21st century. This all occurs at a time when most people don’t work for large organisations. As it turns out, sixty percent of businesses registered in the UK have only one employee and that’s the owner, another twenty percent have less than 5 employees.

How is all this important in visualising employment scenarios for the future? (up)

As the workforce becomes highly skilled and a simultaneous potential for success and failure looms in the horizon, employment in high income economies seems only possible in the context of a gradual but entire transformation of the whole economic structure. Part of such immense transformation would very likely require different business models and intellectual property regimes. Meanwhile an increasing number of inventors, recording artists, comedians and book authors (Radiohead, Ricky Gervais, Yochai Benkler, Cory Doctorow to name a few) are joyfully discovering the economic advantages of a different kind of capitalism whereby making freely available copies of their works online is not at odds with creating closer and more genuine relationships with people through interactive media, webcasts, free college radio exposure, on-the-spot-live CD recordings, collectively sponsored online productions, gigs and conferences. Also, new options in developing intellectual capital by means of audience and distributed content development, open source networks as well as innovative ways to register and distribute creative commons licenses are to a great extent changing the way people think about business in the creative industries.

A sustainable IP regime: can we think of one? (up)

In truth, to suggest that IP monopolies should be ‘swept away’ to better improve social benefits and human welfare as argued by economists Boldrin and Levin doesn’t seem a risky idea anymore when seen from a sustainability angle. Some lawyers understandably are beginning to campaign with pre-emptive arguments favouring an alleged ‘IP environmental protection’ able to identify and save the day for eco-friendly technologies.

Before assessing IP sustainability there are several traps to avoid. The first one being surrendering to the diabolical temptation of letting any type of interesting bigger picture go down the drain. Figure 1 sets out to constructively disclose a few critical misallocations within a potential bigger picture. The first one is that, seen as a survival imperative, sustainability more likely belongs to the realm of what is possible (i.e. if it is not possible is not sustainable). Secondly, not all that is possible -in politics, technology and so on- leads necessarily to what is sustainable.

To an important extent people and organisations seldom wish for things watertight consistent with what is possible, much less with what is potentially sustainable. Out of those things that are simultaneously possible and wished for only a marginal proportion can be regarded as sustainable. Imagination overrides knowledge and technological innovation does not equate with sustainability (sorry lads!).

Fig 1- Reallocating wishes, sustainability and innovation within a bigger picture (traps to avoid)

We are not pretending figure 1 to be the ultimate bigger picture, but it nonetheless puts us in a better position to take the next step toward achieving a more integrated view of the issues at stake when assessing a more sustainable Intellectual property regime .

Coming to grips with the IP bubble. About to explode? (up)

Although small a bubble Let’s not forget that as much as 80% of some knowledge based economies depend heavily on that IP bubble. Here we can distinguish six different IP ‘territories’

The six IP territories

A) IP that is neither sustainable, nor innovative nor wished for B) IP that is wished for but neither innovative nor sustainable C) IP that is innovative and wished for but not leading to sustainability D) IP that is innovative, wished for and leading to sustainability E) IP that is wished for and sustainable but not innovative

F) IP that is sustainable but neither wholly innovative nor wished for

Interlinked policy tensions: a multidisciplinary approach for a sustainable IP regime. Can it work? (up)

After unpacking very contrasting literature, conference proceedings, green and white papers, the press, and online vox-pops, one ends up with two starting points 1- it is very easy to get lost in a multitude of interlinked themes. 2- it is difficult to keep the scientific ability to think imaginatively about the issues at stake while setting personal views aside. Figure-2 is an attempt to coolly organise the complexity of interlinked policy tensions or conundrums that emerge while addressing a unified view of a ‘sustainable IP regime’


Fig 2- Interlinked policy tensions of a hypothetical ‘sustainable intellectual property regime’ this shows the ‘IP sustainability gap’

In contrast, next figure gives a rough idea of current state of Intellectual property within a sustainability framework. As we can see the hopelessness of current IP regimes carries the promise of yet another fertile, articulated research ground for sustainability.

Figure-3 (the cheerful diagnosis) gives a rough idea of current state of Intellectual property within a sustainability framework. As we can see the hopelessness of current IP regimes carries the promise of yet another fertile, articulated research ground for sustainability.

To find out more about climate change and how it relates to IPDI visit www.intellectualfootprint.com regularly.