Serving the common future: patents and clean energy

New energy-related technologies are indispensable in facing the global challenges of climate change. In particular, increasing the share of renewable energy sources in the energy mix is vital for any mitigation strategy that promises success. Unprecedented levels of investment are necessary to drive the process forward, and the patent system has its part to play in that respect. Beyond this function, the patent system plays a major role in the dissemination of an ever-increasing volume of technical information and thus potentially also of the related technological know-how.

However, the sheer volume of this information and its current structure mean that it is not always easy to use, even for experts in the field. This is particularly true of emerging technologies, which are not properly covered by the existing publicly available taxonomies, such as the International Patent Classification (IPC). However, the questions of what is patented, by whom, where and under what conditions are of critical importance in the ongoing political debate, as the negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) also demonstrate.

That is why in 2009 the EPO, UNEP and ICTSD embarked on a joint study analysing the role of patents in the development and transfer of clean energy technologies to address climate change. Such an analysis is of the utmost importance, given that uncertainty over the impact of intellectual property on technology transfer, especially to developing countries, may affect efforts to reach an agreement for a climate framework beyond 2012, when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas reduction expires. The study's initial findings were presented at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December.

However, the EPO has gone beyond the original aim and sought for a way to establish a continuous and reliable flow of data for public use. Its 'inventive step' involves using the inherent core capacities of a patent office to achieve structural transparency in this critical field. This entails introducing an entirely new, fully-fledged classification scheme, covering the main technology sectors and applications, as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An important part of the new scheme, covering selected technology sectors in the energy field, will be released in June via the EPO's patent information service esp@cenet.

The intellectual added value is considerable: information which took significant time and expert resources to retrieve can now be obtained within minutes. In this way reliable data and evidence will be provided for urgently needed analysis and for the ongoing UNFCCC negotiations. As the classification process is integrated in the everyday work of the Office and is subject to permanent peer review, continuity and accuracy are assured.

Moreover, as a global endeavour, potentially covering all patents worldwide, the EPO's initiative opens up new prospects for co-operation with partner patent offices, including the incorporation of further sectors, thereby reinforcing existing links and supporting current efforts for a new common classification scheme. Most importantly, though, it is further evidence of the patent system's desire to be true to the original meaning of its name (from the Latin patere, to disclose or lay open) by making a critical and complex field more open and transparent.

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