Organisations around the world spend significant sums each year protecting their intellectual property. But there are changes afoot, with some companies choosing to make their intellectual property freely available to the public. Could the days of jealously guarded IP be numbered? A recent announcement by GE highlights a new innovation frontier.
“We are working to return patents to their intended purpose, to provide inspiration for future inventors. Welcome to a whole new way of inventing.”
That is the bold claim which marks a new union between GE - one of the world’s largest conglomerates – and Quirky, an online social product development company which launched in 2009.
Quirky invites ideas from, essentially, anyone who has them. This shared thinking approach, or ‘crowd sourcing’, drives collaboration between an untapped community of online inventors and Quirky’s own product design staff. Good ideas make the cut – and Quirky brings at least three new consumer products to market each week.
The focus on en mass collaboration has attracted the attention of big business, namely GE. In April the two companies announced the beginning of the partnership: Quirky + GE.
As a result, GE will now provide unprecedented free public access to thousands of its US product and process patents.
Starting this month, members of the Quirky community will be able to browse an immense patent database to collaborate in the truest sense of the word - developing new products using GE’s existing technologies as a springboard, with input from the other members of the Quirky community.
The founder and CEO of Quirky noted - “For years patents have become widely misunderstood and misused. We are going to return patents to their original purpose to act as a blueprint for technological and societal progress."
The collaboration opportunity
There is no doubt that collaboration can help secure breakthrough innovation. Two heads are better than one... and thousands could be better yet. Companies are increasingly recognising that their internal resources and employees may not have all the answers. External collaboration means new ideas and potentially better solutions.
Australia’s Powering Innovation Policy noted that collaboration "spreads risk, favours serendipity, propagates skills and builds critical mass" and can increase the probability of new-to-the-world innovations by up to 70 per cent.
Collaboration is not a new idea. What is changing is the way it is executed. Traditionally, companies have collaborated with other parties like universities, research institutes or commercial partners. Typically collaborative outputs are kept confidential.
In stark contrast - as evidenced by Quirky + GE - the internet now makes the process of identifying and communicating with collaborators all over the world easier than it has ever been. This ‘cards on the table’ approach could ultimately result in more sharing of knowledge and more productive innovation.
21st Century Collaboration
Quirky + GE are not alone in their endeavours. Internet platforms which seek public input into development, solution-finding or funding are gaining significant traction. For example:
- Platforms like Innocentive list a specific problem and offer a reward to the person who identifies the best solution. There is currently a US$1 million dollar reward for a problem sponsored by the US Government’s Defence Threat Reduction Agency.
- Platforms like Kickstarter and Pozible source funding for anything from scientific research, to consumer product development or charitable causes. Known as ‘Crowd Funding’, this approach to sourcing funding is rapidly gaining momentum.
Other examples of IP being made publically available include:
- The University of New South Wales’ Easy Access IP program, which seeks to drive the commercialisation of a select portfolio of UNSW’s existing IP by making it available to parties to exploit at no cost and on limited conditions.
- Universities are making course content available for free on the Internet through the Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) movement. Stanford University and the University of Melbourne have free courses available for enrolment through Coursera. Penn State University recently reported 1 million enrolments in its courses after launching on Coursera just one year ago.
- Governments around the world are also embracing and demanding free access to intellectual property. In Australia, from July 2012 the National Health and Medical Research Council has imposed an obligation on research institutions to ensure that publications (and associated data) arising from NHMRC funded research are made freely available in an open access repository within 12 months of publication. Last month, Research Councils UK changed its funding rules to require the results of funded research to be published within 12 months in journals that are available for free. The US and the EU are contemplating similar changes.
New frontiers bring new challenges and plenty of questions. Will the IP which is made available to the public through these mediums be available on an “open” basis (users may freely use and modify it provided they share the modified IP with the public) or on much more limited terms? What will be the rights of individual inventors (including where commercialisation is abandoned for any reason)? Most critically - who has rights to commercialise and deal with the outputs of the collaboration and on what terms?
For example, Quirky community members must assign to Quirky their IP rights in the products which are selected for further development, in exchange for a royalty of up to 30% on the sale of commercialised products.
What is clear is that many organisations (including commercial organisations of the scale of GE) are taking a new view of their IP and, to varying degrees, loosening their grip.
To stay competitive, we expect to see many more companies take a similar approach. The extent to which they do so will need to be carefully determined and done on well defined terms.