Sam Judd

Comment on the environment from nzherald.co.nz columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: Giving it away for good

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Elon Musk has openly shared the plans for his electric car. Photo / Wikimedia Commons
Elon Musk has openly shared the plans for his electric car. Photo / Wikimedia Commons

You can't solve the problems of the future with the solutions of the past.

I have long thought that protection of intellectual property (IP) halts progress towards saving the environment. Whether you are a conspiracy theorist or not, throughout history, the electric car has been a prime example of this.

While I haven't been shy about my advocacy for open sourced tools, particularly when it comes to knowledge that adds value to the environment, I was quite surprised when Elon Musk had openly shared the plans for his electric car.

Open sourced IP reduces the barriers to entry for users and improves society as a whole when the invention is for the public good.

However high costs of research and development mean that without IP protection (and therefore potential return on investment), many inventions would never see the light of day.

Another question is posed when there are research grants given out by the government, or inventions arrive with massive assistance from government-funded institutions such as universities - should the fruit of this public investment not be available to benefit the public in the most efficient way?

It is difficult to find the right balance. How do we encourage innovation for social and environmental benefits, while maximising access to those innovations for the general public?

After all, a company directors' foremost legally-canonised responsibility is, of course, to turn a profit for their shareholders, not to look after communities or the environment.

So it gave me great pleasure to see a true leader such as Elon Musk, who I think is far more of a hero than Donald Trump. He realises that to fix a sick world, on a big scale, as fast as possible, the best inventions that achieve this should be shared openly.

He has challenged a US culture that has thrived on luring inventors to their shores with cash, then reaping the benefits of cheap labour in developing countries.

But despite the leadership of the likes of Mr Musk, don't expect this culture to change in a hurry, even with Obama in charge: A 2012 US Commerce Commission report found that IP-intensive industries support over 34% of the US GDP (over $5 trillion annually).

I have warned of the fallacy of such a culture before with the case of Monsanto, who exercise patents on food and are supported by the United States legislature because so much of their riches come from leveraging patents and cheap overseas labour (think people being paid $2 a day to produce US-designed electronics).

On a local (and much smaller, but no less benevolent) scale, I think that Wendyl Nissen is leading the way. In a marketplace drowning in the greenwash of so-called "eco" cleaning products, she teaches people how to make the low-impact and low-cost products that she sells on the packaging itself simply because she wants to improve the situation.

Budding "ecoprenuers" should learn a lot from Nissen and strive to take it to the level that Elon Musk has with Tesla.

Now that we have the plans, the cost is bound to drop, so where is the infrastructure for electric cars?

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