Sustainable Development and Intellectual Property Rights

Over on JustMeans' Sustainable Development blog, Sara Wolcott recently posted a helpful update on the debate over requiring companies to share patented green technology.  It's an important topic, one that's part of a broader discussion of the role of intellectual property rights in promoting social good.

Pharmaceuticals, genetically engineered seed, broadband, computers & mobile phones--these are just a few more items that can be priced out of reach of many people in developing economies, further reinforcing the divide between the wealthy and the poor.  Not surprisingly, much of the emphasis online has focused on criticizing companies for enforcing their intellectual property rights at the expense of those in need.

The counter-argument, of course, is that requiring businesses to give away the fruits of their investment could make it unprofitable to invest in socially beneficial tech.  Lost profits from giving stuff away is only part of the problem; a bigger issue is the thriving global market in grey market goods, as material given away or sold at a discount in developing economies is sold back to distributors in wealthier countries for sale to consumers at a discount--thereby cutting authorized sales of goods whose higher prices include an amount designed to subsidize humanitarian aid.

In addition to calling for companies to give away patented tech, the social responsibility community needs to be more than just a regulatory Robin Hood--we can strengthen our case by helping businesses find ways to make their socially beneficial investments sustainable.