Tuesday, January 29, 2019

It's Hard Out There for a Commons

I just finished reading a fascinating draft article about the Eco-Patent Commons, a commons where about 13 companies put in a little fewer than 100 patents that could be used by any third party. A commons differs from cross-licensing or other pools in a couple of important ways. First, the owner must still maintain the patent (OK, that's common to licensing, but different from the public domain). Second, anyone, not just members of the commons, can use the patents (which is common to the public domain, but different from licensing).

The hope for the commons was that it would aid in diffusion of green patents, but it was not to be. The draft by Jorge Contreras (Utah Law), Bronwyn Hall (Berkeley Econ), and Christian Helmers (Santa Clara Econ) is called Green Technology Diffusion: A Post-Mortem Analysis of the Eco-Patent Commons. A draft is on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
We revisit the effect of the “Eco-Patent Commons” (EcoPC) on the diffusion of patented environmentally friendly technologies following its discontinuation in 2016, using both participant survey and data analytic evidence. Established in January 2008 by several large multinational companies, the not-for-profit initiative provided royalty-free access to 248 patents covering 94 “green” inventions. Hall and Helmers (2013) suggested that the patents pledged to the commons had the potential to encourage the diffusion of valuable environmentally friendly technologies. Our updated results now show that the commons did not increase the diffusion of pledged inventions, and that the EcoPC suffered from several structural and organizational issues. Our findings have implications for the effectiveness of patent commons in enabling the diffusion of patented technologies more broadly.
The findings were pretty bleak. In short, the patents were cited less than a set of matching patents, and many of them were allowed to lapse (which implies lack of value). Their survey-type data also showed a lack of importance/diffusion.

What I really love about this paper, though, is that there's an interpretation for everybody in it. For the "we need strong rights" group, this failure is evidence of the tragedy of the commons. If nobody has the right to fully profit on the inventions, then nobody will do so, and the commons will go fallow.

But for the "we don't need strong rights" group, this failure is evidence that the supposedly important patents were weak, and that it was better to essentially make these public domain than to have after the fact lawsuits.

For the "patents are useless" group, this failure shows that nobody reads patents anyway, and so they fail in their essential purpose: providing information as a quid pro quo for exclusivity.

And for the middle ground folks, you have the conclusions in the study. Maybe some commons can work, but you have to be careful about how you set them up, and this one had procedural and substantive failings that doomed the patents to go unused.

I don't know the answer, but I think cases studies like this are helpful for better understanding how patents do and do not disseminate information, as well as learning how to better structure patent pools.

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