How can intellectual property contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

This post originally appeared on the Transitions to Sustainability blog:

Both sustainable development and an effective protection of intellectual property (IP) rights are priorities for many countries. Yet whether countries adopt adequate IP policies that facilitate transitions to a more sustainable world is an open question. The North-South economic divide brings to light the challenges and opportunities that countries face in using IP as a tool and asset to help achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. While developed countries have started to commit to mitigating the negative consequences of industrial development on the environment and to emphasise the societal impact of economic activities, developing countries struggle with unmet needs in areas such as education, health, energy, sanitation and financial services. This means that the transition path to a much-desired sustainable world remains long.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are highly political and span from “no poverty” to “peace, justice, and strong institutions” and “partnerships for the goals”. Intellectual property, as an instrument that rewards knowledge creators, appears to play no direct role in achieving sustainability aims. An indirect link, however, can be found if we consider the technological innovation needed for addressing some of the SDGs such as “affordable and clean energy”, “climate change”, “clean water and sanitation”, and so on. IP incentivizes and protects many innovations addressing environmental challenges. Technology is key to progress and to reducing the developmental gap between the North and the South, but access to technology remains a challenge for many developing countries due to financial constraints, poor infrastructure, lack of robust legal systems, and many other reasons. IP is one of the factors that plays an important role in access to technology, both in developed and in developing countries. This is because IP rights protect new knowledge embedded in technological innovations. Strong rights enable innovators to capture returns on investment and further incentivize innovation in cutting-edge technology. But strong protection has its drawbacks, because society bears the costs of reduced competition, increased prices of the protected technology, and barriers to using the protected technology in order to develop follow-up innovations.

Setting the right balance between the innovator’s interest in restricting access to the protected innovation, and the interests of society in accessing innovations, is therefore important for fostering an innovative and sustainable economy.

However, strong IP protection may be beneficial for developed countries, but not for the developing world. This seems to be the case for plant breeding. Patents and breeder’s rights in industrialized countries have not stopped the plant breeding industry from providing plants for different uses such as food, textiles and energy. But these rights are controversial in developing countries, which struggle with food security issues and which have existing informal seed systems. Similarly, developing countries do not have the capacity to manufacture life-saving medicines. Coupled with the high prices of drugs patented by foreign companies, this situation poses serious challenges for the health system. In one specific case in India, involving Bayer and a local manufacturer, the Indian government ordered Bayer to license its patented medicine for the treatment of advanced stages of liver and kidney cancer. This allowed the government not only to sell the medicine at lower prices, but also to distribute it for free to poor patients. In these terms, access to protected technology seems to be essential for enabling transitions to a more sustainable world.

The Transformation to Sustainability (T2S) programme supports research projects that explore the role of IP in sustainable development. One example is the Intellectual Property Models for Sustainability Transitions (IPACST) project. This project distinguishes between different types of IP models, such as closed, semi-open, and open for enabling sustainability transition. Another project funded by the first T2S programme (established by the International Social Science Council) is Bioleft/Open Seeds, which was established through the PATHWAYS network. Bioleft has created a platform for seed exchange, which enables a seed bank and a network of experimental sites to support participative breeding processes. Three types of licenses based on open source principles guarantee the free flow of germplasm for research and development purposes, and support seed-saving practices. The technical and legal tools elaborated by Bioleft researchers are relevant for preserving traditional varieties bred by small farmers, and consequently, for ensuring biodiversity. From a sustainability perspective, Bioleft addresses both social and environmental aspects. Through technical and legal tools, such as the platform and licensing models, the project offers valid options for safeguarding the essential role of farmers as guardians of seed biodiversity who contribute to sustainable development. This is an example of how IP can contribute to the 2030 Agenda. Knowledge-sharing based on open source principles can significantly contribute to closing the gap between countries with different developmental levels, and thus, contribute to a better world!

Further readings

  1. Dutfield, G. and Suthersanen, U. (2020). Global Intellectual Property Law (2nd edition). Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
  2. Abbott, F., Cottier, T., Gurry, F. (2015). International intellectual property in an integrated world economy, 3rd edition. Wolters Kluwer, New York.
  3. Cimoli M., Dosi G., Maskus K. E., Okediji R. O., Reichman J. H., and Stieglitz J. E. (2014) Intellectual Property Rights. Legal and Economic Challenges for Development. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Olwan, Rami, M. (2013). Intellectual Property and DevelopmentTheory and Practice. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  5. Hope, J. (2010). Biobazaar – The open source revolution and biotechnology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

The views in this post represent those of the author (Viola Prifti), not necessarily the views of the IPACST team.