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Large corporations have joined forces in an 'open innovation' project to allow public access to patents with environmental benefits.

IBM, Nokia, Pitney Bowles and Sony, in partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), have compiled a portfolio of patents — the Eco-Patent Commons — that can be used in manufacturing and business processes.

The list of patents was made available this week (14 January).

Companies can pledge patents that save energy and water, reduce the production of hazardous waste, increase recycling or reduce the amount of material used in a process.

Sony, for example, has pledged a patent for recycling old mobile phones into digital cameras and other electrical equipment, with the aim of increasing the amount of material that can be reused in the electronics industry.

The organisers hope that the scheme will encourage researchers and industry to create, use and develop processes in an environmentally responsible way.

George Weyerhaeuser, senior fellow at the WBCSD, said the Council is realistic about the initiative's immediate impact. "At the outset, we can only hope for a modest impact on the environment and businesses in developing countries," he told SciDev.Net.

"I expect this new way of doing business will take some time to catch on. Open innovation is getting well known in some sectors, like [open source in] information technology. But the idea is still very unusual for many businesses."

Weyerhaeuser says that the scheme was designed with the needs of developing countries in mind — though not uniquely so. "Intellectual property rights are mentioned often as a barrier to technology transfer. The commons will help with that issue."

Graham Dutfield, professor of International Governance at the UK-based University of Leeds, gave the scheme a cautious welcome.

He says that the businesses involved are well known for holding non-innovative patents. "One wonders if the patents [they are] supposedly giving up are the ones that are for genuine inventions or those that are not."

Dutfield told SciDev.Net that, while IBM is pursuing initiatives to make it seem like an "open source camp", many of those are "a sophisticated form of intellectual property management that is tailored to specific technological fields in order to secure market advantages in each one of them".

"But if IBM and the other companies involved are really serious about this then it can be a really good thing."