As world leaders prepare for climate talks in Copenhagen next month, developing nations have tabled a controversial proposal which would effectively end patent protection for clean technologies.
China and India have floated the idea of making new green technology subject to ‘compulsory licensing’, which critics say amounts to waiving intellectual property rights.
The idea of adapting or liberalising patent rules for crucial new inventions which can help reduce carbon emissions is not new, but the EU and US are unhappy with compulsory licensing, fearing it would dramatically reduce the incentive for businesses to innovate and stifle green job creation.
Compulsory licensing has to date only been used in emergency situations where patent-protected pharmaceuticals were seen as prohibitively expensive. The Thai government used the mechanism to allow local medicines factories produce HIV drugs at a fraction of the cost.
Now, the group of 77 developing nations, led de facto by China, wants to apply the same logic to the climate crisis.
The Coalition for Innovation, Employment and Development (CIED), a think-tank strongly in favour of intellectual property rights, has published a report highlighting the threat to European industry posed by ending patent protection on clean technologies.
Patent protection needed to stimulate job creation
The report says millions of jobs could be created in Europe through the research and production of innovative green technologies but this opportunity would be jeopardised by weakening intellectual property rights.
It proposes that any political agreement reached in Copenhagen should focus on financial assistance to developing countries, with this funding being used to purchase technologies that reduce emissions.
Michael Taylor of CIED says giving technologies to developing countries for free is “not an option”.
The business community wants a predictable IPR regime so it can plan its investments in research and development, according to Talyor.
“Our study clearly indicates that involuntary measures, such as compulsory licensing and other anti-IP efforts, will hinder the EU’s ability to reinvigorate its economy, create jobs, and lead the world in green technologies,” he said.
The CIED is critical of the growing number of activists now advocating for an end to patent and copyright protection, including the Swedish Pirate Party, which now has two MEPs.
“I really don’t think they have thought this through. A world without intellectual property rights would be a pretty horrible place to live. There would be no investment in new technologies,” he said.
China leading developing nations in climate talks
Taylor said many of the basic environmental technologies are already off-patent and questioned whether China can still be defined as a developing country given its heavy investment in research and development.
“China purports to speak for developing countries – the Group of 77 – but I would put China into a different category to most of the other members of that group,” he said.
China has come under pressure to beef up intellectual property rights but Beijing says it has taken concrete steps to tighten up this area.
Song Zhe, Chinese ambassador to the EU, said there is no question that developing countries need financial and technological support to help tackle climate change.
He noted that last year the Chinese government introduced a national programme on intellectual property rights which helps protect the rights of patent holders and supports China’s economic development.
“All these positive measures will be helpful in IPR discussions in future,” the ambassador said, without commenting specifically on whether the issue was a bone of contention between the EU and China.
Climate change will be top of the agenda when leaders meet at the 12th EU-China Summit in Nanjing on 30 November.