Organisations around the world spend significant sums each year protecting their intellectual property. But there are changes afoot, with some companies choosing to make their intellectual property freely available to the public. A recent announcement by GE highlights a new innovation frontier.
“We are working to return patents to their intended purpose, to provide inspiration for future inventors. Welcome to a whole new way of inventing.”
That is the bold claim which marks a new union between GE - one of the world’s largest conglomerates – and Quirky, an online social product development company which launched in 2009.
Quirky invites ideas from, essentially, anyone who has them. This shared thinking approach, or ‘crowd sourcing’, drives collaboration between an untapped community of online inventors and Quirky’s own product design staff. Good ideas make the cut – and Quirky brings at least three new consumer products to market each week.
The focus on en mass collaboration has attracted the attention of big business, namely GE. In April the two companies announced the beginning of the partnership: Quirky + GE.
Starting this month, members of the Quirky community will be able to browse an immense patent database to collaborate in the truest sense of the word - developing new products using GE’s existing technologies as a springboard, with input from the other members of the Quirky community.
The founder and CEO of Quirky noted - “For years patents have become widely misunderstood and misused. We are going to return patents to their original purpose to act as a blueprint for technological and societal progress."
There is no doubt that collaboration can help secure breakthrough innovation. Two heads are better than one... and thousands could be better yet. Companies are increasingly recognising that their internal resources and employees may not have all the answers. External collaboration means new ideas and potentially better solutions.
Australia’s Powering Innovation Policy noted that collaboration "spreads risk, favours serendipity, propagates skills and builds critical mass" and can increase the probability of new-to-the-world innovations by up to 70 per cent.
Collaboration is not a new idea. What is changing is the way it is executed. Traditionally, companies have collaborated with other parties like universities, research institutes or commercial partners. Typically collaborative outputs are kept confidential.
In stark contrast - as evidenced by Quirky + GE - the internet now makes the process of identifying and communicating with collaborators all over the world easier than it has ever been. This ‘cards on the table’ approach could ultimately result in more sharing of knowledge and more productive innovation.
Quirky + GE are not alone in their endeavours. Internet platforms which seek public input into development, solution-finding or funding are gaining significant traction. For example:
Other examples of IP being made publically available include:
New frontiers bring new challenges and plenty of questions. Will the IP which is made available to the public through these mediums be available on an “open” basis (users may freely use and modify it provided they share the modified IP with the public) or on much more limited terms? What will be the rights of individual inventors (including where commercialisation is abandoned for any reason)? Most critically - who has rights to commercialise and deal with the outputs of the collaboration and on what terms?
For example, Quirky community members must assign to Quirky their IP rights in the products which are selected for further development, in exchange for a royalty of up to 30% on the sale of commercialised products.
What is clear is that many organisations (including commercial organisations of the scale of GE) are taking a new view of their IP and, to varying degrees, loosening their grip. While rarely giving away their IP for free, organisations are finding new ways to extract value from their IP.
To stay competitive, we expect to see many more companies take a similar approach. The extent to which they do so will need to be carefully determined and done on well defined terms.
There is no doubt the innovation process is changing... watch this space.
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