Computer giant IBM has announced the launch of a program to place certain patented inventions in the public domain, in the interest of encouraging innovation in the field of environmentally friendlier technology.

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IBM, Sony, Nokia and Pitney Bowes are currently the only companies participating in the Eco-Patent Commons, but they hope to encourage other companies to join in. Between them, the four companies have already placed 31 patents into the commons, freeing them up for use by anyone without the need to pay royalties.

“As has been demonstrated by the open source software community, the free sharing of knowledge can provide a fertile ground for new collaboration and innovation,” states the web site of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which will oversee the commons. “Sharing environmental patents can help others become more eco-efficient and operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner, enabling technology innovation to meet social innovation.”

Inspired by the success of open source software, other fields have adopted open content systems, such as the Creative Commons for artistic works or the Open Gaming License for role-playing games. IBM assistant general counsel David Kappos acknowledged the role of the Creative Commons in inspiring the Eco-Patent Commons.

The Eco-Patent Commons hopes to focus on inventions in the fields of energy conservation, pollution prevention, reduction of water use, and improvements in materials and recycling. Some of the inventions already placed in the commons include a method by Nokia for recycling used mobile phones into other electronic devices; an IBM cardboard-based packaging system for electronics; a manufacturing process to reduce volatile compounds; and a coagulant that can be used to purify contaminated water.

Acknowledging that the commons is not intended to cause economic harm to participating companies, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development urges companies to submit “patents that provide environmental benefit and do not represent an essential source of business advantage.”