Can Copyright Save the Planet?

Today on World Intellectual Property Day, Netopia asks this question: Can copyright save the planet?

The UN’s climate panel recently released its recommendations on technologies that can mitigate climate change, help reduce carbon emissions, or even take away carbon-dioxide (and other green-house gases) from the Earth’s atmosphere. That is great, while some seem to think we must reduce our quality of life in order to mitigate climate change, that is not necessarily the case.

Planet Earth’s resources are limited, but the human population grows and we all hope to have a better life. Is this an impossible equation? Do we need an extra planet? Can there be economic development without killing Mother Earth? The UN-report offers many great suggestions, mainly focusing on how our activities can be more green: hauling goods on electric trucks, sustainable energy production, more efficient building construction and more.

Ideas brought out to solve the seemingly impossible equation of economic growth and a limited planet often touch some of these topics:

Electrification – stop using fossil fuels, instead move to various forms of electric mobility. It can be based on batteries, hydrogen or other technologies (hyper-speed carbon rotors, anyone?).

Services – repair rather than buy new consumer goods. Increase value of existing offerings by adding related services. Move from product to service: rent before buy. Many of the industrialized value chains rely on extracting raw materials and refining them, moving to more circular value chains (=services) is one way to break the vicious cycle.

Digitalization (1) – going digital can make process more efficient, increase productivity and thereby profitability. Or the productivity gains can be exchanged for more climate friendly business. A manufacturing plant for let’s say shovels might produce more if it digitalized stock-keeping of input materials, decrease waste and energy use. With that, the management could decide to make more shovels, decrease prices, increase profits or just make the same amount with less impact on the planet. That is one side of digitalization: take an existing process and make it digital.

Digitalization (2) – the other chapter of digitalization is new offerings that arrive. There were no social media editors before the internet (and for quite a few years after to be honest). The words “search engine optimization” made no sense in the 20th century.

All of these are fine and well, good ideas on how to maintain and grow our quality of life within the scope of the planetary boundaries. They are not “green-washing” – that is when a climate-intensive business pretends to be green by some symbolic gesture (looking at you, oil companies who brag about planting trees). No, these are legit and well-researched ideas. Only this writer would like to offer one more: immaterial value. That’s right, economic value that has no material form, usually in the shape of intellectual property. As the word immaterial suggests, the impact on the planet is virtually non-existent. Sounds too good to be true? Consider this:

In 2004 the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office EIPO participated in an international aid program supporting local coffee farmers. By developing trademarks and origin recognitions, the value of the coffee multiplied. Combined with some smart sales strategies (selling to café chains rather than wholesalers), the coffee growers’ revenue increased 6-8 times. Same coffee beans. Same patch of land. Same work input. Seven times the money, made possible with intellectual property.

There are more examples of intellectual property used to increase value in developing countries, this writer has met a lady who works with textile workers and helped them increase their gains by taking control of their intellectual property: brands, patterns, business agreements. Same work, same yarn, better pay.

A knowledge economy is based on intellectual efforts, many of which create immaterial value. This value can grow over and over again, the resources needed stay the same. I don’t need more food or use any more power to write these words than had I not (I would probably have been watching stupid videos on my phone so a net positive for the planet in more ways than one!).

And these trends can support and multiply each other:

Think about video games – the European digital champions. The turn-over of the games companies in Sweden grew from 1,2 Bn SEK (~€120M) in 2010 to 35 Bn SEK (~€3,5Bn) in 2020*, rivalling some traditional exports such as paper pulp and iron ore. That’s right, more than 30 times the value, with very little extra resources used (some more electricity and office space). Combining services, digitalization and immaterial value creation, these powers support and reinforce one another.

The answer is yes. The immaterial economy delivers sustainable growth. Carbon emissions can be reduced, we don’t have to move back into caves. Copyright can save the planet.

*) Full disclosure, this writer also works for the organisation that publishes this report