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India - OPINION: How To Protect The Inventions Of The Poor
New models of intellectual property rights
are needed to protect – and promote – local knowledge and innovations, says
Professor Anil Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network.
and innovations created by people in developing nations need to be protected by
intellectual property (IP) rights – not so much to prevent others from learning
and building on their ideas, but to ensure that they are not short-changed. IP
rights also protect those who commercialise these innovations from unfair
protected by patents, a main conventional form of IP rights, can withstand the
scrutiny of ‘global prior art’ – that is, they have novel features beyond
previously known practices or technologies. India’s National Innovation
Foundation (NIF) has filed in the United States and in India more than 500
patents on behalf of knowledge-rich, economically poor people.
should go beyond conventional models of IP rights to give innovators a true
stake in their inventions. That’s because never before in human history has
more knowledge been eroded from communities than in the current generation –
and we seem to be mute spectators.
For the common good
that innovators can protect their work is through the concept of ‘technology
commons’, which evolved during the doctoral work of my colleague Riya Sinha. It
implies that copying and adapting innovations is allowed between people
(‘horizontal learning’), but not from people to companies, except through
example, in the case of a multi-purpose ploughing machine operated with a
mobyke (motorcycle), several mechanics copied the design and some improved it.
These improvements and the original innovation could then be put in a
technology commons bundle.
this arrangement, no one person can license it to a third party without
consulting others, particularly the lead innovator. The entitlements of the
lead innovator and imitators or beneficiaries need not be equal.
concept needs fine-tuning. For example, some of the recent improvements don’t
use a mobyke at all (they use a chassis – an iron frame with a different
gearbox and four wheels), and so cannot be considered derivatives of the
original innovation. The question is where to draw the line when such
Investing in domestic innovation
countries endeavor to strengthen domestic industry by acquiring technology from
abroad through a technology acquisition fund. But there has been little
discussion of how it could be used to incentivize domestic innovators.
could it work? The idea is to acquire the rights of technologies whose
potential may not have been exploited fully in the hands of the innovator. The
government or public institutions can then make these innovations open source,
or license them to small entrepreneurs for free or at low cost.
now managing a fund in this way, with help from India’s Department of Science
and Technology, allowing innovators to use their creation as they wish but also
allowing NIF to disseminate it.
innovators should not be expected to subsidize the cost of societal learning;
the state or market should bear that cost.
Extending IP protection
IP rights is important, but we should go further. Institutional science and
technology expertise needs to be combined with local knowledge and innovations
to create value-added products.
scientists acknowledge that, for example, a crop developed by a farmer is
better than the variety released by a university, it raises the self-esteem of
a local innovator. This was the case for Balwan Singh, from Haryana state in
India, who distributed seed from his improved onion variety to thousands of
other farmers in his area.
variety is in the process of being registered with the Protection of Plant
Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority, along with 20 other varieties, which
NIF can access for wider dissemination.
without the assurance of some protection, at least over the short-term, there
is no incentive for thousands of communities, traditional knowledge holders and
grassroots innovators to disclose their knowledge.
a registration system that extends IP to potential entrepreneurs and investors
at a low cost. Under this system, innovations would get automatic IP
protections once disclosed by the innovators, and if their value was
non-negligible. Local knowledge would become part of our global heritage after
the protection time period is over.
commercialized after that, the money would be channeled to an international
fund for incentivizing conservation and disseminating creativity at the grassroots
level in local languages.
Licensing to other nations
promote faster technological change at a larger scale, we need a different
global fund to create a pool of IP-protected innovations that can be licensed
to developing countries at no cost or low cost.
NIF and the Honey Bee Network offered such a pool to S&T ministers of
developing countries at an international meeting held in New Delhi in March
2012. Low-cost, non-exclusive licenses to IP-protected technologies were
offered to African countries, starting with Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
need to explore longer-term licensable rights in traditional knowledge –
treating it as a ‘prior art’ disenfranchises communities and nullifies their
research and development (R&D) efforts over generations.
asymmetry in securing rights on knowledge between the formal and informal
sector has to be overcome sooner than later. Otherwise, we risk communities
losing faith in the fairness of formal institutions.