Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

  • ben
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Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Dear all,

I wanted to start a discussion to collect views of everyone on the « patent » in the sanitation sector. Patents have often restrained global development, blocked progress and provided monopoles to companies. Examples are endless of abuses from HIV medication to computer software, including Monsanto life patenting, etc …

One of the basic questions to me is:
• Can the global public financing agencies be considered as world public money, therefore every project should share all the data, plans, inventions, etc … without any restriction?
• If a private organization is involved partially in a project, can it justify that a patent protection is created and information retain, even with a consequent public fund involve?

The arguments in favor of the patent system are often the following:
• We invested in the R&D so before we paid back our investment we don’t share it.
• We don’t share the plans of the product because people would replicate it badly and therefore it would be bad advertising for the product.
• We want to keep the lead on this technology, with the RfP system you always need to prove you’re better than your « sector colleagues – competitors ».

The question is always trickier when we talk about big infrastructure requiring skills and years of researches than simple pit latrine.

In the sector, I’d be extremely curious to know what the policies on the patent are for the following great inventions (just examples …) :
• Sharing policy for the “reinvent the toilet” awarded inventions, can B&M Gates foundation actually be considered as world public money? Considering we all gave a lot of money to Microsoft …
• DEWATS from BORDA, you shared a lot already and this is all in your honor. But what is your detailed policy on the subject cause you don’t really put online “all” your knowledge, how to design, build and operate a DEWATS.
• LaPeDa (Latrine Dehydration and Pasteurization) Technology, funded by the e-Thekwini municipality to make pellets out of sludge. Are you planning to keep the technology secret so the municipality will create a business out of it ?
• Akvo FLOW system, which I like the line “Akvo is established as a non-profit foundation, and works under the principle “not for profit, not for loss”. We run our software as a service for over one thousand partners, so we can develop and support it at a lower cost than any partner could achieve doing the same in-house”. You said it all.
• Sanitation marketing is supposed to enhance competition, in the case of the IFC program in Kenya they say at the end of the article: “If you are a manufacturer or distributor interested in entering the sanitation market in Africa, please contact us for more information”. Are you really willing to create a totally open competition or will you short-list the number of manufacturer to make sure private sector will feel secure (at least at the start).

These are just examples and if we take a broader point of view we could include in this thoughts:
• All the PPP projects, because there is a little private money invested, investors usually put as a condition that no feasibility studies are shared so they’re guaranteed a small monopoly on this.
• PhD researches, when there’s a little private fund then the research is usually not available anymore

I’m a big supporter of the open source in general but I’d like to understand better your views on this aspect of our work, it seems we (development workers) are always parted between our dedication to the cause / willingness to share and the fact we need to actually win proposals, always stay competitive and pay our bills.

Thanks for your participation to this debate.

Ben
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  • JKMakowka
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Good idea to discuss this!

I am generally pro patent but also pro open-source. However, I think patents need to be much more restricted (in time and what is patentable) to avoid all the abuse we have seen lately.

When it comes to "development" innovations, there are really very few that fulfill a "sufficient level of technical innovation" that I would consider necessary for a patent.
Often a lot of social research and usability testing has to go into these, but technically speaking a UDDT for example is "a box with a funnel to collect urine", so nowhere near something one could (should be able to?) patent.

Open-sourcing ones feasibility tests and social studies is of course another thing, but once you have successfully installed your innovation, anyone can basically see how it works exactly and copy it, so I don't see much point in keeping it secret (and these things are not patentable anyways).

But even for "higher level innovations" I don't really think a patent is necessary. The need and possibility to scale up these things is often so large that there is plenty of room for you and all your copying competitors to grow for a duration at least as long as the patent would grant you protection. Thus all the patent would do is to prevent real scale-up and thus it isn't desirable in a development project.

Competition for donor funds is of course another concern, but there should be only very few rare cases where you as the inventor aren't considered the "go to expert" on the topic. So either you have the capacity to adsorb the funding, or you should let a competitor do it.

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  • Florian
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Ben, from reading some of your posts, I think that you are a practionner, someone with hands-on experience in implementing projects.

So a question to you: In your work, did you often, or even ever, encounter the situation that a lack of publicly available information was an important obstacle?

I for my part can anwer that question with a clear: no! Never, the lack of information was a problem in my work. I can't remember a single occasion where I coulnd't do my work because someone did sit on a piece of information and did not give it to me. No patent was ever in my way ;)

Real problems I encounter have to do with lack of capacities of local partner organisations, lack of capacities of local service providers (e.g. design companiers, consultants), lack of awareness in local population and governments, difficult legal frameworks etc. More than plenty information on how to do things is out there easily available, the problem is to find the people being able to do the things.

So I kind of feel that patents in sanitation is a non-issue. To the contrary, I'd see it as a positive sign if we would have a lot of companies being after sanitation patents, because that would mean there is a real market, a real demand, money to be made in sanitation. Unfortunately that's not the case.

Best, Florian


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  • ben
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Dear Julius, Florian,

Thanks for your quick reply, I’ll try to narrow my thoughts as I did face situations where not proper “patent” but “total information sharing” have been a constraint in some projects.

1st Case :
Imagine I need to win a proposal to propose innovative technology like DEWATS with an innovative approach to the HH survey using FLOW, I contact them to work as partners and they tell me “sorry, we’re too busy at the moment and the country you work in isn’t a priority country for our organization”.
2nd Case :
Imagine I’m a little inventor in my backyard, I find an amazing invention and develop it in my home town in France. I’m ok to share it with other dedicated practitioners (sharing my values on the subject) who want to start it elsewhere but I don’t want to face competition in my home town straight away. How do I share the invention, open source would be dangerous for my business as big manufacturers would use my plans and produce it probably cheaper than I do … and I want to live out of this invention without direct competition in my town.
3rd Case :
Someone had public money to develop a design, because a fraction of the financing was private he can’t share the design. I need the same thing somewhere else so I’ll spend the same amount of public money trying to copy it. At a global level, we spent twice the public money for the same purpose … I believe thousands of similar design developments have been done with separate funds because information wasn’t shared in the first place.

A great amount of data is shared, and Susana library is a wonderful example of the global movement in this direction. However, why NGOs don’t put online ALL the feasibility studies, baseline surveys, design reports and plans, program evaluation, etc … I might be a bit exaggerating but public money should mean open source, and I believe funders should oblige practitioners to put online ALL their production.

Ben
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  • Florian
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Hi Ben,

I largely agree with the points you make, but I still think that is more of a theretical concern than a real problem.

To use your examples:

1) DEWATS: plenty of information out there on DEWATS, even nice books from Borda. You won't fail to offer DEWATS to a client because of lack of information, but perhaps because of lack of an engineer having experience with DEWATs or company references with DEWATS(I don't know FLOW, so can't comment on that)

2) This "amazing invention" that could help achieving the MDGs and at the same time be attractive for big manufacturers, this has yet to be invented. Bill Gates is trying to do that, but I'm not so sure he'll get there in the end. At the moment, this is theory only.

3) I agree, we all are probably reinventing the wheel over and over again. But is this really because others are hiding their information? Or rather because we don't spend the time and resources needed to systematically go through all the enormous amount of info available, identify interesting projects, analyse which could be good examples, go there and learn how to do it and how not to do etc.?

I might be a bit exaggerating but public money should mean open source, and I believe funders should oblige practitioners to put online ALL their production.


I agree to that, of course. But this probably already happens to a large degree anyway.

To summarize the point I want to make: I believe that the big bottleneck to do succesful sanitation projects is not lack of information, not the lack of good technologies, but the lack of experienced people.

Regards, Florian


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  • ben
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Florian,

Just to precise that I'm in very good terms with BORDA people, I respect hugely their work and this was just an example, I don't blame them at all for not sharing enough. I actually think they do share a lot and thank them for that !

You're mentionning B&M gates, their sharing policy (on the wesite) isn't really clear to me and out of the reinvent the toilet project presentation susana is delivering gradually, it seems difficult to have full data of the inventions developped through the program. Do you have informations regarding their willingness to share the plans, production methods, research documents, etc ... ?

"Lack of experienced people", I agree but experience kind of come through reading, in order to not repeat mistakes others made earlier ... thanks to them for sharing their mistakes, instead of only doing communication on how great they are ... and how much they deserve the next project funding.

Thanks for your comments,

ben
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

I want to add, just to be clear: I absolutely agree that developments and inventions made with public money like research grants or ODA should be open-source. I just think that even though there is probably still quite a big potential to make this better, to make more infomation public and easily available, in practice the lack of information, patents or copy rights are not an important problem.

I'm not sure about BMGF policy on patents on products developed with their financing, I believe they are supportive of making results available, but someone else can maybe confirm. But you have to see that all those reinventing the toilet projects are done by researchers, universities. They do their work first, then write their papers and wait until they get published. Only then the results are available. On the other hand, at the moment I don't see even remotely anything in these projects that I could apply direcly in real life projects.


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  • AquaVerde
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Dear Ben,

let me be very personal on this "patent" issue.

In the past 1992, I "provoked" at University (FH) Suderburg, Germany purposely a very similar discussion between my mates, a group of 20 international MSc.-Students for "Tropical-Water-Engineering", involving our very much liked lector, late Mr. Helmut LAUTERJUNG (†1992). An international experienced private hydraulic engineer/real expert.

I started within the international group of young engineers: "Shouldn't we keep "our" new know-how as "on-side engineers" better to our self, on order to be always in business?"

Despite changing often to new "development"-buss words, from "industrializing, aid, management, gender, PPP or globalization and selfish small minded EU politics, to my very surprise it boiled down to HIS very personal level & to the personal character of each engineer, regardless gender or her/his originated from a warm or cold country.

I remembering like to day on his words, some how like this and very shortened:

"As a young engineer he came across all kinds of internat./local senior engineers/"experts", from people who stole e.g. grey science "papers" from African colleagues with the purpose to be "helpful" to the local colleague, to publish this paper in Europe "through the right canal" and to international=local "experts", who did a lot of capacity building without handing over the "KEY" (the know-how how to do it in practical terms). So, he decided for him self to go a more happy & positive phat, to be a resourceful person to ALL and giving always away the "KEY" to others, regardless her/his professional level. Only through this he been always in good business financial and personal wise around the whole world. By this time Internet was not widely used like to day and so he answered many International phone calls very direct."

Unfortunately after this very personal lecture to all of us, we never saw him again, he died very fast on a tropical illness a week later. Since this days I am using his therm "KEY" too. So at least to my personal level I tried to live up his legacy, (not always successful! ;-) despite International flying and Local "experts" called me an idiot. :sick: B)

Let me end with a very positive example of KNOW-HOW manual with the "KEY" by late Mr. LAUTERJUNG:
in open library: ENGLISH www.gate-international.org/documents/pub...docs/pdfs/g31ple.pdf

German: www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/soziales/raesf...abtrug-a-860837.html

see past postings at susana subject: WIKI-SUSAN? Open Source! forum.susana.org/forum/categories/54-wg-...san-open-source#5836

I am not happy about very strange developments on know-how publications and transfer, Julius called it very polite (political correct ;-):

"However there is seemingly less and less practical information (manuals etc.) produced within the sector (compared to what was common lets say in the 1970ties or even the 1990ties) while the overall "text-output" is ever increasing. Not exactly a good "development" in my opinion."


I been a bit more brutal:

"your second point, I call it SALE of knowledge without "keys" (like selling a house without keys), to hinder purposely real access to the particular know-how, in order the author or owner of booklet receives payments for handing out the needed keys later... "economizing" every part of live...

the mentioned practical information (manuals etc.) produced within the sector in 1970ties to 1990ties came very much with the keys, see nice examples of GATE-booklets of former GTZ now called GIZ ("Gesellschaft für individuellen Zeitvertreib und Teppich-Handel";-)

the "Open Source" approach comes always with the keys and is in my opinion picking up on the idea/objectives of mentioned 1970ties & 1990ties (e.g. by former GATE) but taking it with the help of the Internet (web 2.0) much further.

I would like to encourage discourses between us on issues around "Open Source" on WIKI-SUSAN in general, not getting sucked only in narrowed subjects like ABRs or dry toilets only...

"Open Source" on WIKI-SUSAN is not about general susan-knowledge (SSWM and Akvo), it is about how to do it (know-how) and how to taking it further on individual and group levels, like example of www.wikihouse.cc "



Take it easy ;-)

Detlef

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  • JKMakowka
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Interesting discussion.

One point I would like to add:
A proper patent system is in any case preferable to people keeping their innovations secret. I can't count how many times I searched well documented older patent documents (all the way back to the 1890ties) through Google's open patent library. With a patent it is all there clearly for others to learn from, and after something like 25 years (which I think is too long) it is freely available to anyone.

But specifically for the development sector I agree that most things should be open-source as ultimately by "reserving" innovations only for yourself, you are profiting from peoples suffering.

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  • Florian
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

AquaVerde wrote: the keys


Hi Detlef,

yes, I remeber you mentionning "the key" elsewhere ;)

You have also been asked then what exactly you mean by this key, I admit I did not really understand what exactly you meant.

To me, the key needed to make the step from the knowledge written in paper to it's practical application in a project is the people applying the knowledge. In my opinion, in my experience, it's there where projects fail: people not being familiar with available knowledge, not understanding it, not taking it into account, not applying it properly, even if the knowledge is well there in a pile of paper on their desk or just three click away on google or susana.

Example: almost anywhere you find projects with nicely implemented infrastructure but failing, decaying, being unused due to lack of good operation and maintenance. Though basically every single document stresses the importance of taking care of O&M as key for success. Still the same mistakes are done all over and over again. Why? Certainly not for a lack of information or hidden "keys".

Again: information sharing, open source etc. is important, I highly benefit from offers like the susana database. But I think the situation is already pretty good. To moan about patents, conceiling of information, hidden keys etc. is missing the real issues we face, I believe.

Regards, Florian


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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Dear Florian,

Set aside big politics and very theoretical concepts, I made in the past good experiences by trying to visualize for my self and to my colleagues, (the KEY is just one example)

- creating pictures in the other brain, rather to bluff around with abstract numbers and concepts,

- visualize e.g. what is the "red thread" (Roter Faden) of the project, in other words what is the main issue and what are the side issues, but which side issue is important too, in order the colleague can take the "red thread" by him/her self further,

- giving up or delegating further parts of project responsibilities step-wise enables very much (colleagues blossomed up by applying their own and much better ideas), keeping always in mind I am not the future project owner despite some engineering solutions are not to my personal standard/taste. Taking a step back in the shadow, just watching the "red thread" is not some how getting lost.

- to run O&M without permanent external supports like external "capacity buildings" is to my understanding very important and to be very clear on profit and personal interests of people involved, not expecting people working just for the merits for free for the community. E.g. just stating "Community should be involved in O&M process for sustainability" is not enough.

I stressed on this important issue several times in the susana-forum, last example: forum.susana.org/forum/categories/53-fae...al-sludge-management
and
forum.susana.org/forum/categories/35-bio...-fall-into-disrepair

Dear Jonathan,

Without going too much in very scientific research, organizational and HR details.

In my educated guessing, it is very simple: If O&M staff is very direct connected/benefiting from the results of their daily work, you can skip many capacity building projects, quality control measurements, management information systems and scientific researches to keep decentralized or centralized systems running. In comparison, even with a good and permanent monthly salary you can neglect what ever wwtp and biogas system, in north or south does not matter.

Example from Indonesia: small entrepreneurial use of produced DEWATS-biogas by O&M staff to sale cooked noodles to passerby's.


Many "capacity building" (I do not like this specific development buss-word at all!) are not necessary, if people/beneficiaries can really apply their own profit-interests in projects.

But this kind of "profit approach" would put many "flying experts" & ivory towers out of jobs !? ;-)

All the Best
Detlef

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  • Florian
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Re: Discussion on "patents" for sanitation inovation

Hi Detlef,

from what you say here, there is not much left for me to disagree with ;)

The points you make (list of 4 points) are about good practices in making projects, about good ways of capacitiy building (even if you don't like the word), more than they are about availability of information.

Many "capacity building" (I do not like this specific development buss-word at all!) are not necessary, if people/beneficiaries can really apply their own profit-interests in projects.


Your last point touches one of the main dilemmas (if not THE main issue) we face in sanitation: there is just too often no or not enough direct profit or interest for people in improving their saniation systems.

Regards, Florian


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