UN Climate Talks: Cleantech IP Battle of the Year?

Intellectual property rights have a long history as a cornerstone of Silicon Valley lobbying efforts. Welcome to the latest chapter: defending IP rights against the potentially eroding force of international climate deals. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spearheading a new effort to ensure that U.S. lawmakers and climate negotiators don’t — in their efforts to make clean technologies available to developing countries — weaken rules about who can profit from those innovations.

The Chamber of Commerce rounded up something of a motley crew for the launch of its new Innovation, Development & Employment Alliance, or IDEA: representatives from Microsoft (s MSFT), General Electric (s GE), startup Sunrise Solar and auto supplier Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems joined the Chamber’s Global Intellectual Property Center President, David Hirschman, in announcing the new group in Washington, D.C. earlier this week.

Right now, IDEA is mainly worried about the UN climate negotiations coming up in Copenhagen in December. In a recent interview with the Green Patent Blog, Caroline Joiner, Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center, said the upcoming talks represent “the IP battle of the year.”

Their concern stems in part from the position taken by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu that the international community should take a “very collaborative” approach to improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s the larger context for Chu’s comment, as reported by the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog (he’s not calling for an all-out attack on IP protections):

You don’t build a power plant, put it in a boat and ship it overseas, similar to with buildings. So developing technologies for much more efficient buildings is something that can be shared in each country. If countries actively helped each other, they would also reap the home benefits of using less energy. So any area like that I think is where we should work very hard in a very collaborative way — by very collaborative I mean share all intellectual property as much as possible.

Hirschman, with the Chamber of Commerce, has taken isssue with the idea of opening up advanced clean technologies, as has GE’s Ecomagnination chief, Steve Fludder.

Some cleantech entrepreneurs see a hefty stake in the matter, too. Scott Faris, CEO of Planar Energy Devices, a battery developer spun out of the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory said in an interview Thursday:

There’s a direct correlation between IP protection and the flow of capital, particularly for smaller companies. If we’re doing cutting edge stuff, we have to carve out a defendable stake with enough time to build up. That’s what investors look at — how defendable is your position?

Guy Sella, CEO of SolarEdge — a stealthy power-conversion developer based in Herzliya, Israel, that has been reluctant to reveal much about its technology over the last few years — also weighed in on IDEA’s stance. In an email, he cautioned against “any weakening” of existing IP protections for energy innovations said his team “fully agrees” with the line IDEA is taking. He also wrote:

Innovation and development cost lots of money, and without protection for the developing companies and their investors, there will simply be less innovation and less development.

Sella doesn’t see this as entirely self-interested — IP works to the benefit of developing countries where Chu and others want to see swift deployment of cleantech, he said. “Keeping well-proven IP protections as they are,” he said, “is good both for the innovating companies and for the developing countries benefiting from the innovations.”

Faris pointed out that international collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean yanking IP from private companies’ hands. There’s also the national labs, and other organizations that, “have a broader goal in life.”

Neither Faris or Sella described the Copenhagen talks as the looming doomsday that it represents for some, but rather seemed to see this as an ongoing issue for innovators and policy makers to work on. Faris said he doesn’t think U.S. lawmakers have a good understanding of the IP protections that cleantech startups need. “If you had an elected body full of engineers and scientists, you’d have an understanding,” he said. “I’m glad to see there’s a debate.”