Episode 14. Matthew Rimmer on Intellectual Property and Clean Technologies

Climate change exposes the trade-off inherent in intellectual property protection. Research and development is expensive; companies won’t invest in it if they don’t expect to profit. Traditionally, profits from new technologies are provided by the exclusive rights granted by the patent system. But by granting patent rights, we ensure that new innovations will have a limited reach. So how do we both create new technologies and spread them as widely as possible? We need climate-friendly technology to be used everywhere, including in developing countries with limited resources. In this episode of Public Ethics Radio, we explore the debate about intellectual-property policy for clean technologies.

Our guest is Prof. Matthew Rimmer of the Australian National University. Rimmer is a Senior Lecturer at the ANU College of Law, and a member of the ANU Climate Change Institute. He has published widely on intellectual property issues, and is working on a new book titled Intellectual Property and Climate Change: Inventing Clean Technologies.

Click here to download the episode (31:05, 15 mb, MP3), or click on the online media player below. You can also download the transcript.


We discussed the problems with the patent regime and pharmaceuticals way back in episode 1.

The Chamber of Commerce is a major trade group, representing a wide swath of business owners in the United States. It is known for its conservatism and its vast expenditures on lobbying. There has been a great deal written on the Chamber’s stance on climate change—here’s a good example.

The Copenhagen Climate Conference, technically the 15th annual Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was held in Denmark in December 2009. For a recap, see this piece in Time, or revisit the Guardian’s collection of Copenhagen coverage.

The acronym “BRICs” refers to the major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China. Similarly, the G-77, or Group of 77, is a negotiating group at the United Nations comprised of developing countries. The small island states are exactly what they sound like.

The Doha Declaration (Wikipedia) is a Minsterial declaration of the World Trade Organization, issued in 2001, that clarifies the right of WTO members to manage intellectual property rights in relation to access to medicines. In particular, it emphasizes that members have the right to issue compulsory licenses (i.e., officially override patents) for medicines. Rimmer has written an interesting essay on the Doha Declaration, where he examines the sole case of a country (Rwanda) exercising its Doha Declaration rights. He found the mechanism for implenting the declaration wanting.

Article 27 of the TRIPS Agreement (the WTO treaty on intellectual property rights), describes the scope of patents. And it provides the exception that “Members may exclude from patentability inventions, the prevention within their territory of the commercial exploitation of which is necessary to protect ordre public or morality, including to protect human, animal or plant life or health or to avoid serious prejudice to the environment, provided that such exclusion is not made merely because the exploitation is prohibited by their law.”

As noted, compulsory licenses are official overrides of patents. (Patent-holders must still be paid some royalties for use of the patent, however.) Although countries are nominally free to issue them, attempts to exercise this right have been met with fierce opposition. Rimmer mentions the infamous case of Thailand, which in 2007 issued a compulsory license for efavirenz, an Abbott Labs HIV/AIDS medication. Abbott responded by withdrawing registration for other medications in Thailand, and successfully lobbied the United States government to exert trade pressure on Thailand. See a review of the case at the pro-compulsory licensing KEI website.

Rimmer mentions “Sachs,” referring of course to the economist Jeffrey Sachs.


Specifically, Carl Horton, GE’s IP Chief, said that the “patent system is one of the necessary prerequisites to inspire companies to do the right things about climate change.”

Here, again, is KEI (Knowledge Ecology International).

The Virgin Earth Challenge.

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 2007 to Al Gore and the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change for “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

Details on Greenpeace’s Stop Esso campaign.

And finally, here’s the Yes Men‘s Chamber of Commerce hoax. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s announcement that they will defend the Yes Men.

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