Intellectual property rights, open licences, and climate justice
By c.daouti, on 24 October 2022
Happy Open Access Week 2022!
This year’s theme is about opening up knowledge to tackle the climate crisis. It is about addressing inequities in how different communities access, create, share and use knowledge and resources that make it possible to prepare and respond to natural disasters and to understand and develop rapid solutions to problems caused by climate change. It is also about highlighting and celebrating practices that open the way to more collaborative, inclusive and sustainable ways of working.
Open practices and climate change
Open access – traditionally defined as immediate online availability of research publications, in ways that allow anyone to read them, share with others and reuse them – plays an important role in enabling access to knowledge; but clearly it is not enough. The scope of Open Access week itself has evolved over the years to acknowledge this. Diverse communities – researchers, educators, policy makers, innovators, activists, the wider public – from different economic, cultural and discipline backgrounds need to be able to share ideas, data and tools, as well as literature. In other words: open science.
Open science (or ‘open scholarship’) includes any practice that enables the sharing of knowledge, tools and resources throughout the research process, in ways that allow further development of these resources. Transparency is key in open science, so that research processes and outcomes can be discovered, evaluated and, where relevant, reproduced by others. Open access, open data, reproducible research practices, open education and, crucially, citizen science, are all practices that help address the progress of climate change research while being sustainable themselves.
But for open science to be possible, barriers – geopolitical, economic, societal, or legal – need to be identified and addressed in flexible ways.
The role of intellectual property and open licences
Intellectual property is one of these barriers; but can also provide the answers. Research literature, educational materials, websites, databases, software and hardware equipment are all, by default, protected by copyright, design rights or patent rights. And while it is true that, in many cases, IP rights provide commercialisation incentives that make innovation possible, it can also be argued that climate change and the need for fast interventions is not one of these cases (see relevant article on IP’s role against climate change).
What can then be done to open up knowledge and resources so that anyone in the world can, not only access them, but also evaluate, adapt, develop and reuse them?
The first – relatively simple – solution is open licensing. Open licences work within IP law, to determine how others can reuse materials that are under copyright. Creative Commons Attribution Licences can be applied to various works, including documents, websites, film, images and data. The most permissive CC BY licence allows sharing, adapting and even reusing commercially, as long as the authors are acknowledged. Similarly, open source licences can be applied to software, code and even hardware. Examples of open licensed materials that help education, research and innovation in climate change include the use of CC licences in preserving cultural heritage affected by climate change, the use of open source licences to tackle climate change and the open licensing of the UNU website, which focusses on environmental issues.
One step further from open licensing is waiving copyright and releasing a work in the public domain. Waiving copyright can boost collaboration and innovation, particularly where there is ambiguity around who owns rights across different country legislations.
The second way in which IP can help foster openness is through initiatives that seek to address IP conflicts and align policies, so that, for example, rights ownership, commercialisation and openness can co-exist. For example, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is doing a lot of work on addressing IP issues with a view to accelerate environmental research and technology development, while initiatives like the Open Climate Campaign and the European Commission address legal and governance barriers so that openness can be better supported.
Finally, open availability of knowledge related to climate change comes with a responsibility to support the understanding and critical evaluation of these open resources. As with any politically charged issue vulnerable to misinformation, information literacy is essential. Educators, including library professionals, are in a good position to offer guidance on discovering, evaluating, using, attributing and compiling evidence from various sources. Understanding how rights and open licensing can help open up knowledge is part of these responsibilities.
For UCL’s current skills programme see the library’s training sessions.
For advice on copyright and licensing, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.