The Intellectual Property Century

1/11/10

Great technology improvements over the past decade have proven again that innovation serves as the best currency for progress against our greatest challenges. Terrific new tools and applications in information technology have been on display everywhere during the holidays; green tech ideas abound offering great promise; and even in the more prolonged R&D world of biopharma, we have seen important advancements across a wide variety of diseases. Other better-versed contributors undoubtedly will expand on specific achievements, and what is in the pipeline for the exciting decade ahead.

All these areas of technological innovation are unified by the challenges and opportunities arising from their underlying intellectual property framework. With the “innovation economy” serving as the future driver of our economic well-being, and technological solutions central in finding solutions in energy, health, communications and more, IP has become the critical rudder for the 21st century economy. Alongside our focus on the specific innovations that we will see in the coming decade, we need to more transparently and aggressively understand, expand, address and deploy IP models and methods.

IP unfortunately still remains primarily in the domain of lawyers, innovators and funders, often misunderstood, abused or ignored by the general public, sales channels or policy-makers. Over the past 30 years we have witnessed a remarkable change in the amount of professional attention toward the field: law schools across the country now offering specialized IP programs; thousands of dedicated IP legal and consultancy firms around the world; many new laws, policies, cases, books and articles on the topic; and a modest recognition by the general public that that such rights exist based on the IP noise made in the online media world.

We now must build on those advancements to more effectively educate broadly what intellectual property means to both individuals and our society. We now must address some of the toughest great debates troubling the field (and the related technologies), such as the fundamental conflicts over online content, the appropriate role of IP protection in the context of global health and development, or the rights and obligations that arise from supra-sovereign technology solutions arising in energy and climate change. We now must also be more creative in using IP as a tool for further progress, innovation and positive social change, instead of primarily a defensive sword for protection of vested interests.

Some of the world’s biggest challenges will only be solved by more creative thinking in this regard. For instance, we will meet the challenges of climate change not only through massive policy shifts, but through technology innovations in which we must both reward the innovator and ensure the innovations are shared broadly, quickly and effectively, often across national borders. Reliance only on markets and existing IP infrastructures will not be adequate to meet these demands. Similarly, as we address some of the world’s most troubling global health challenges – whether pandemic flu outbreaks, malaria or TB vaccines, or innovations in therapeutics or diagnostics – engaging more private sector players on terms that both allow for their most aggressive participation and yet ensure the global access to the discoveries for the world’s poor, will force us to engage in new and better ways to manage the rights and obligations arising from these innovations. The same might be said for more still-forming world of online and social media, where the rules of the road are so dynamic that the law is simply not keeping pace with the technologies.

How all this will play out in the coming decades remains unclear. But I would place a big bet that at least as much attention, debate, and opportunity for change and innovation exist in how we think about and manage ownership and distribution of technology, as in the technologies themselves. As we commence the second decade of the 21st century, more attention, analysis and education should be paid to this defining characteristic of our times.

[Editor's Note: This is part of a series of posts from Xconomists and other technology leaders from around the country who are weighing in with the top innovations they've seen in their respective fields the past 10 years, or the top disruptive technologies that will impact the next decade.]

Steve Davis is the president and CEO of PATH, the global health nonprofit based in Seattle. Follow @

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