Q&A: Open Intellectual Property Models of Emerging Technologies

The guiding question of our research group is the extent to which more open sharing of technologies, through a range of legal mechanisms from patent pools to open source approaches, results in equitable sharing of knowledge and what implications that has for society.

Jenny Molloy, Convenor of Open Intellectual Property Models of Emerging Technologies

Open Intellectual Property Models of Emerging Technologies and Implications for the Equitable Society is one of eleven interdisciplinary CRASSH Research Groups running fortnightly seminars in the academic year 2017-18. Dr Jenny Molloy, one of the group's convenors, is Coordinator of OpenPlant and the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative. From March 2018 she is a Shuttleworth Fellow in the Department of Plant Sciences, researching open source approaches to biological engineering.

Q. How did your research group come about?

I've been interested in questions around open approaches to sharing knowledge and technologies in science for around a decade and over three years working in Cambridge I met several people who approached the topic from different perspectives. For example, I'm Coordinator of OpenPlant, a synthetic biology centre which is exploring pragmatic mechanisms to exchange tools and DNA resources for engineering plants; Dr John Liddicoat (Faculty of Law) was exploring gene patenting practices from a legal perspective and Dr Frank Tietze (Institute for Manufacturing) had just published a working paper on the potential of Open IP to facilitate sustainability transitions. We had all collaborated in various smaller combinations but felt that there would be a lot of value in creating some dedicated time to work collectively on common interests. A CRASSH Research Group seemed like a fantastic mechanism to create that interdisciplinary space. It gave us a license to broaden our perspectives and ask deeper questions on everything from epistemology to economic theory underlying open approaches to emerging technologies and also invite other members of the University and beyond to join us. 

Q. By definition, a CRASSH research group has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What's yours?

The guiding question of our research group is the extent to which more open sharing of technologies, through a range of legal mechanisms from patent pools to open source approaches, results in equitable sharing of knowledge and what implications that has for society. This takes in a range of concepts such as open innovation as a firm-level knowledge transfer practice, inclusive economic growth models, the access to knowledge movement and more.

Q. What were the highlights and challenges of your first term as a research group?

The highlight was definitely hearing from such a diverse range of contributors, including Dr Rafael Pezzi, a physicist and open hardware developer from Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil who participated during a visit to Cambridge and has continued to join online. The main challenge (which is ongoing!) was getting to grips with the different vocabulary, ways of knowing and theoretical underpinnings of each of our disciplines and areas of expertise. That level of interdisciplinary engagement is difficult because it causes you to take a new look at your own academic values and practices, but it's also rewarding and hopefully it gave us a good base on which to build future discussions.

Q. Could you tell us a bit more about the group's convenors, speakers and/or attendees and the perspectives they bring to the discussion? 

Our convenors come from the natural sciences, international development, innovation and technology management, law and international relations. Everybody brings a different perspective and focuses on different societal stakeholders in their own work, which is important because our underlying question is about societal change. In the first term, we spent most of our time in a reading group format so our speakers were largely from the convening group and our immediate collaborators. We wanted to work together in reviewing and critiquing foundational literature. For example, a major gap that we are trying to bridge through these meetings is between two extensive bodies of research: one on open innovation practices in firms, which is focused on competitiveness and growth at the firm level and another on potential societal benefits of free and open technologies that highlights potential injustices of current intellectual property regimes, particularly in a context of sustainable development. These two perspectives have a lot to learn from each other and should not be addressed in isolation, even though one often characterises the other as problematic. It has been stimulating to all participants to hear different disciplinary and international reflections on these readings and others, especially with our focus on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and green technologies that already have such major global implications.

Q. What can we expect from Open Intellectual Property Models of Emerging Technologies in 2018? 

During Lent Term, we will be inviting external speakers on topics including open IP in emerging economies, how one might assess the impact of alternative IP regimes for emerging technologies and 'public vs private perspectives on open IP', where one speaker will argue that the session title itself is invalid. We will also explore a range of case studies. Easter Term will be a time for consolidation and we aim to publish a synthesis of our learnings and look to formulate research questions to pursue. All are welcome to join the group and the schedule can be viewed online at the CRASSH website. We also have a mailing list where the readings, notes and announcements will be posted and we welcome virtual participation. If anyone has questions about joining the group, you can contact synbio@hermes.cam.ac.uk – we'd be delighted to hear from you!

Posted: Monday 5 February 2018