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Open Patents

Conventional wisdom in all areas of manufacture has been bound up in the seemingly insurmountable need to treat all commercial and other advantages as a secret. The truth is that, once released, any new or improved technology is no longer a secret. With that in mind, the open patent movement is motivated by applying different paradigms to inventions and improvements.

Patents are legal devices that allow discoverers of new technology or processes to claim a monopoly on the use of and the revenue gained from the sales of the patented material. Patents had been known in early Greek society but became formerly codified from the 15th century onwards in Europe. The largest numbers of applications for patents came in England with the technological explosion of the Industrial Revolution. The patent system from its earliest times was open to abuse and various legal redresses were enacted from time to time to normalise patent processes.

The patent process is normally dedicated to setting ownership of newly discovered technology but can also be used to claim proprietary rights over enhancement of existing technology.

In the open patent movement there is a strong imperative to build a large volume of patent-protected inventions that can be made available under various free licencing regimes such copyleft and patentleft. The licencees are freed from exposure to lawsuits for patent infringement by the clearly stated conditions and ownership provisions of the patented technology. While this situation is not as fluid as making software available under open source licencing schemes, it serves its stated aim of allowing patented technology to be generally made available without prohibitive costs and continuous legal checking.

The fractious history of some of the various open technology movements has often worked against wide scale adoption of open patent technology. However this is gradually being addressed with new initiatives.

Behind the idea of open patent lies a common understanding that open patent methodology would work best in a consortium model and also with national and international standards bodies that would monitor compliance with the open patent conditions used by practitioners. Non-compliance would see the withdrawing of open patent use permissions.

The terminology used to describe open patent licenses include copyleft and patentleft. Copyleft is a play on the word copyright. Patentleft borrows several ideas from open source licencing.

An excellent example of patentleft in action is the project, Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS). Participants are urged to add innovative collaborations to the technology base. Licencees that enhance genetic transferability are required under the patentleft licence to make their changes and insights available to all licence holders. The underlying priciple is therefore reciprocity where all others benefit from a licence holder's advances in the patented knowledge base.

Apart from the genetic work that comes from BIOS there is considerable interest in consortium movements to work with plant variety patents and also software patents. The need to produce and invest in these patents is put into sharp focus when it is compared to the combined legal and patent power of four of the world's top ten companies who between them garner over one trillion dollars in revenue per year. These four companies hold the lion-share of all software patents granted in the past forty years.