The COVID-19 pandemic hitting the entire world has provided big challenges for 2020. But this new problem should not make us forget the bigger picture, and the even bigger challenges: Climate change is now a reality, and we are all called to act to prevent the worst scenarios.
This is why this year the WIPO has decided to dedicate their World Intellectual Property (IP) Day 2020 to a green future, focusing on innovation — and the IP rights (IPR) that support it.
The IP community should work together to foster green innovation, especially in developing countries.
In this examination, we are going to try to understand the current role of green technologies in the ASEAN countries, and at the same time, see how IP can fit into the picture.
It’s no secret that in recent years, Asia has based its economic growth on a ‘grow now, clean up later’ model. Economic success has come at a high environmental cost. Taking Indonesia as the main example, we can see that deforestation and peatland burning are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions and drivers of biodiversity loss. While an increasing number of countries have committed to phasing out unabated coal use, Indonesia’s 2014 National Energy Policy envisages nearly doubling it by 2025 (compared to 2015 levels) to achieve an affordable electricity supply for all.
Pollution is not just putting pressure on the natural capital of the country, but could ultimately put the economic development and the wellbeing of its citizens at risk.
This is not just unacceptable from a moral standpoint, it’s also highly inconvenient from an economic point of view.
This is why we are starting to see a slight change in attitude towards green technologies from the peoples and the governments of the ASEAN nations.
According to a report by Clean Energy Pipeline (quoted by Intern Asia), investments in solar projects in Southeast Asia increased at an annual growth rate of 8 % between 2010 and 2014.
Since there are still 70 million ASEAN citizens without access to reliable electricity, the potential for renewable energy is huge — and solar energy is one of the best solutions.
Energy production is one of the main focuses of green development, but it’s not the only one. Waste management, water purifying, clean building and smart cities are among the top priorities. There is also an increase in demand for ‘green’ products from consumers that are developing an environmental consciousness.
This huge demand for new technologies and innovative solutions also provides an opportunity for SMEs to contribute to a greener future.
As the WIPO suggested, ‘Transitioning to a low-carbon future is undoubtedly a complex and multi-faceted endeavour. But we have the collective wisdom, ingenuity and creativity to come up with new, more effective ways to shape a green future and the IP system has a pivotal and enabling role in supporting us on this journey.’
IP alone cannot ‘make the innovation happen’, however, without IP an innovation framework would be doomed to collapse.
It cannot be doubted that fostering and protecting innovation is one of the main functions of IPR. Without IP protection, investments in intangible assets would be less secure; these assets could not be claimed, protected or traded. In other words, if any competitor can use intangible assets without an investment, no investor will be willing to risk their capital.
This is especially true for patents. Patents ensure inventors have the exclusive right to exploit an invention; this form of commercial reward can potentially encourage companies to invest in new, clean and efficient technologies. On the other hand, patented technologies are disclosed to the public, this ensures that the technical knowledge surrounding invention research is publicly accessible and can inspire further innovation. The WIPO and many IP offices around the world, including the European Patent Office (EPO), have implemented better databases to promote the dissemination of information regarding green tech and, in the end, the development of new inventions.
Patents are also pivotal in the business strategy of many green companies; they do not just attract and secure funding, they are also a source of revenue (through patent licensing and technology transfer agreements, non-commercial licenses and other arrangements).
Collaboration between government and startups has been seen to help meet climate challenges while growing small businesses. It’s not a huge surprise, but it’s still worth noting, that US-based startup patents in green-tech development tend to rise by 73 % when there is a collaboration with government behind them.
However, when it comes to the international exploitation of patents, some caution is needed.
IP protection is territorial, this means that your patented invention is not automatically protected in the world, while it’s disclosed worldwide. Therefore, preparing a good international patenting strategy and/or putting in place additional protections, for example wrapping your technology in Non-Disclosure Agreements, is of paramount importance.
Also keep in mind that free technology transfers are not always encouraged by ASEAN governments that prefer to keep some form of control over them, for example by imposing registration obligations on contracts.
Moreover, according to the TRIPS Agreement (here), national laws can provide exceptions to the exclusive rights conferred by a patent, as long as they are not unreasonable and properly balance the expectations of the patent owner and those of third parties. Some countries, including Indonesia, have taken advantage of this provision to impose some form of compulsory licenses.
As mentioned, instead of patents you can rely on trade secrets to protect your new technologies. This is particularly useful for SMEs as trade secrets don’t need to be registered, so they don’t have cost implications or time limitations. However, trade secrets provide weaker protection, and the best strategy is probably to combine patents with trade secrets.
As a general rule, a good IP strategy is not limited to patent protection — and the green sector is no exception.
Design protection can, for example, play a very important role in providing protection from copycats and cheap reproductions. A small change in the design of a product can significantly change its performance in terms of energy use (for example in vehicles or aircraft). In ASEAN countries, protection for industrial designs is quite sophisticated and is usually less constrained and easier to obtain than patent protection.
Software and, in particular, Artificial Intelligence have, and will have, an important role in the development of new solutions for a green world (for example, helping to measure and regulate demand, and offering energy-optimizing resource use).
From the traditional viewpoint of IP law, software is protected as a literary or artistic work under copyright. This is not the time nor place to discuss if copyright is the best way to protect software and the problematic topic of the patentability of computer-based inventions. Let’s work with what we have.
The good news is that thanks to the Berne Convention copyright does not entail any formal registration process and arises automatically upon the completion of the work. This protection should be ensured in every country that is a member of the convention (including ASEAN ones). However, registration is advisable as it provides proof of ownership in potential conflicts.
As mentioned, the green economy also means that greener options are available to consumers. In ASEAN countries, the middle class is developing an interest in healthier foods. This includes many European Geographical Indications (GIs), as they are perceived to be natural and good. GIs, as well as attracting consumers, also provide a good way to uphold sustainable production standards.
Finally, do not forget the power of branding! Your trade mark is your value and your reputation, if you manage to build a strong bond with your consumers and market yourself as a legitimate ‘green brand’ you will acquire more and more customers that share your values.
However, do not forget that the best trade marks are the distinctive ones. Simply adding ‘green’ to your name might convey a good message, but it can be deemed to be a descriptive element and hinder your trade mark protection. It’s always better to choose trade marks that, as well as being connected to green topics, have a more distinctive flavour. Think about plants, animals or even rocks … be creative!
It’s worth noting, that if you claim to be green and clean you should be. Otherwise, you will not just be betraying the consumers’ faith, but also breaking consumer protection laws.
Protecting your brand and registering your trade marks is even more important when doing business in areas like SEA where counterfeiting is rampant. Registering a trade mark early is the first, and sometimes also the most effective, step towards protecting yourself.
To sum up, a good IP strategy can foster growth in every sector, in particular in fast-developing industries like green tech. Be ready and do your bit.
Happy IP Day!
South-East Asia IPR SME HD: https://www.southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu/
WIPO World Intellectual Property Day 2020 – Innovation for a Green Future: https://www.wipo.int/ip-outreach/en/ipday/2020/green_future.html
AIPPI Report on Intellectual Property and Green Technology, 2014: https://aippi.org/enews/2014/edition38/images/reports.pdf
OECD Green Growth Policy Review, Indonesia 2019: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/1eee39bc-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/1eee39bc-en
ASEAN fast becoming a renewable energy hub: https://theaseanpost.com/article/asean-fast-becoming-renewable-energy-hub
Eurocham Vietnam Greenbook: https://www.eurochamvn.org/node/16988
The Role of IP Rights in Green Technologies Innovation: http://metispartners.com/2019/11/22/the-role-of-ip-rights-in-green-technologies-innovation/
Green technology in Asia: https://www.internasia.com/Green-technology-Asia
Environmental issues are top priority for Asia’s youth: https://www.eco-business.com/news/environmental-issues-are-top-priority-for-asias-youth/
Compulsory Licensing Procedures in Indonesia Revised: https://www.rouse.com/magazine/news/compulsory-licensing-procedures-in-indonesia-revised-again/