Since the Italian Renaissance, societies have offered their innovators a deal. In return for publicly describing their invention, they are granted a period of exclusivity. This not only encourages innovators, it gets ideas more quickly out into the open, where others can build upon them.

TIt is an approach that has served society well over the centuries. Yet recently it has become more controversial. Should life-saving drugs be patented? Should life forms? Should a company get private rights for software without revealing the underlying source code? Does the morass of patents and licenses in the field of biotech actually limit progress?

Amid such arguments, IBM has quietly brought forth a new idea: an “eco-patent commons” (EPC), a process to share intellectual property (IP) related to environmental and ecological technology.

There is a need. The vast majority of patenting happens in the North, whereas the rapidly industrializing South requires all the help it can get in managing environmental impacts (see figure below). The goal is to have the EPC serve as the catalyst for collaboration and innovation in addressing urgent environmental challenges.