Last month, David Bartecchi, Executive Director of Village Earth, traveled to Ethiopia and Malaysia to speak at two separate appropriate technology design competitions hosted by the UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the Korean Intellectual Property Organization (KIPO). The purpose of the competitions was to promote the use of freely available patent information for the development of appropriate technologies in developing countries. In each location, contestants were asked to develop a technology using freely available patent information and were judged based on uniqueness, potential impact on alleviating poverty, environmental sustainability and social equity.
The contests were part of WIPO’s larger development agenda, in particular, their mandate “[t]o undertake initiatives agreed on by Member States, which contribute to transfer of technology to developing countries, such as requesting WIPO to facilitate better access to publicly available patent information.”
While patent information has always been publicly available, it was traditionally only available in hard copy form from their respective patent offices. However, today the Internet has made patent information accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. In fact, many national patent offices now have online databases searchable by keyword. Other services, like Google Patents (patents.google.com), are working to consolidate patent information from multiple countries into a single database. Using Google’s database, it’s possible to keyword search the entire text from approximately 8 million patents and 3 million patent applications and download the complete text and graphics from each patent as Adobe PDF files.
Patent information can be a valuable resource for developers of appropriate technologies since they often contain detailed diagrams and descriptions of particular technologies. It does however, have its limitations. Patents generally are very narrow in focus, describing only specific parts, mechanisms or processes vs. the entire technology. For example, if you are trying to build a wind turbine, you may only find patents for the blades, the rotor assembly or the tower vs. all these parts working together. Also, patent designs are not necessarily tested and thus, there is no guarantee of their of effectiveness, reliability or efficiency.
Is using patent information legal? Patent law is really a two sided social contract. On the one side, it is meant to protect the inventor in a specific geography for a specific period of time. On the other side, it is meant to serve the public good by making that information freely available so other inventors can use it to innovate (as long as they do not violate what is protected in the patent). Patents’ terms are generally limited in the United States for 20 years with the payment of regular maintenance fees. After 20 years, or if the inventor fails to pay their maintenance fees, that information enters the public domain. Once in the public domain, that information remains there forever. Patents also only provide an exclusionary right in the country where the patent is filed. That means, a patent filed in the United States is only protected in the United States. To be protected in other countries, the inventor must file and pay maintenance fees in each country he/she desires protection.