How to protect the inventions of the poor

Innovators need assurance that their knowledge rights will be protected Copyright: SRISTI, Ahmedabad

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New models of intellectual property rights are needed to protect — and promote — local knowledge and innovations, says Anil Gupta.

Knowledge 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 competition.

Inventions 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.

But we 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

One way 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 licensing.

For 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.

Under 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.

But the 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 complications emerge.

Investing in domestic innovation

Generally, countries endeavour 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 incentivise domestic innovators.

How 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. 

NIF is 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.

Grassroots innovators should not be expected to subsidise the cost of societal learning; the state or market should bear that cost.

Extending IP protection

Protecting IP rights is important, but we should go further. Institutional science and technology (S&T) expertise needs to be combined with local knowledge and innovations to create value-added products.

When 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. [1]

The 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.

But 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.

We need a registration system that extends IP to potential entrepreneurs and investors at a low cost. [2] 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.

And if commercialised after that, the money would be channelled to an international fund for incentivising conservation and disseminating creativity at the grassroots level in local languages.

Licensing to other nations

To 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.

India’s 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 licences to IP-protected technologies were offered to African countries, starting with Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

We also 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.

The 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.

Anil Gupta is founder of the Honey Bee Network and a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He can be contacted at anilg@iimahd.ernet.in or anilgb@gmail.com.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Supporting grassroots innovation.