Sharing Green Patents on the Eco-Patent Commons New platform makes pro-environment patents available for anyone to use

This past year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted nearly 250,000 new patents—allowing various innovations to be exclusively owned by an organization or individual. These patents form the backbone of our consumer society, but, until now, they haven’t offered much benefit to the environment.

green patents' width=Enter the Eco-Patent Commons. Established by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, WBCSD, the initiative has fostered efficiency and environmental sustainability by making patents that are good for the environment available for anyone to use. Björn Stigson, the former president of the WBCSD, says: “The free sharing of these patents leads to new collaborations and innovation aimed at helping others become more eco-efficient and operate in a more sustainable way.” Over 100 patents have now been gifted into the Eco-Patent Commons in areas such as energy efficiency, energy conservation, waste reduction and recycling, allowing everyone free access.

Companies Share Innovations

Some big players have put their collective weight behind this partnership, including Nokia, IBM and Sony. Information technology giant Hewlett-Packard recently offered three technology patents to the program, including a self-contained battery recycling station designed to encourage consumers to exchange their used batteries for new ones or for a credit, as well as a process that eliminates the need for antioxidant metal coatings (which can include heavy metals that damage both the environment and people’s health) during microchip and circuit board assembly.

Seven patents have been donated by DuPont, all of which offer environmentally superior refrigerants, or fluorocarbon alternatives, for use in refrigeration and air conditioning. Fluorocarbons are part of the group of greenhouse gases that the United Nations believes are more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and which have played a key role in reducing ozone levels.

DuPont has also pledged a technology that involves an organism which lights up to indicate the presence of a pollutant in water treatment facilities. Tara Stewart, sustainability advisor at DuPont, says this technology could “potentially be used to monitor soil, air and water quality in our communities and neighborhoods.” Rather than keep its technology in-house, DuPont recognized that the Eco-Patent Commons offers an accelerated channel through which environmental solutions can be reached.

“Our hope is by sharing some of these patents that help the global environment, we can build a research community that comes together to solve the problems facing our planet and growing population,” says Stewart, adding that some of DuPont’s inventions sit outside the direction of their business, and they are happy to share these if it means the environment will benefit.

Organizations around the world are now picking up these patents and developing solutions to environmental problems. Yale University, for example, has used one of the patents pledged by IBM to replace a toxic additive that was being used in their research computers with an environmentally preferable mixture of alcohol and water.

Building New Solutions

The GreenXchange ( has a similar mission as the Eco-Patent Commons. It has been set up in cooperation with Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization which has developed model licenses where creators retain some copyright. Nike is one of the biggest partners in GreenXchange and has made available their environmentally preferred rubber which contains 96% fewer toxins than was previously used in their footwear. Unlike the Eco-Patent Commons, the firms contributing patents through GreenXchange restrict licensing and can charge an annual fee for patent use.

John Wilbanks, former vice president for science at Creative Commons, says: “There is so much duplication of effort and wasted resources when it comes to sustainability. We need to make it easier for individuals, companies, academia and researchers to collaborate and share.”

These types of initiatives transform our thinking about who owns ideas. Rather than organizations guarding and protecting patents, they are challenged to look at ideas as transferable and even profitable when shared. And sharing knowledge and technology is one sure way to set a course to a more sustainable world.