A Better Approach to Intellectual Property?: Lessons from the US-China Clean Energy Research Center

Written by Joanna I. Lewis, an associate professor of Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and recently the author of the award-winning book Green Innovation in China: China’s Wind Power Industry and the Global Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy, the paper makes a case for why the jointly funded US-China Clean Energy Research Center, or CERC, may be a useful model in addressing the thorny issue of intellectual property (IP) protection in the area of R&D and potential technology transfers.

As the United States and China have become important developers and deployers of clean energy, over the last six years, according to Lewis, bilateral collaboration in this realm has been a notable bright spot amid intensifying competition and tension between the two countries. Consequently, in November 2009, Washington and Beijing signed several agreements that included the launch of the CERC in an effort to facilitate joint R&D on clean energy technology in areas such as batteries, clean coal, and building efficiency.

Yet despite a growing record of collaboration, it is hard to see it reaching full potential unless the two countries can navigate the pivotal problem of protecting IP. Concerns over the sharing of IP have been frequently identified as a real and serious barrier to more tangible and fruitful collaborations. While joint R&D can provide a number of direct benefits to firms, it can also impose significant costs. In the clean energy area, these can range from honest misunderstandings to blatant IP theft.

But the author argues that a potentially promising and creative solution to these IP issues may lie within the CERC. The CERC, for instance, has already pioneered some novel ways of managing jointly developed IP. Lewis argues that it is worth exploring whether such a model can be adapted more widely to achieve better and sensible protection of IP while buttressing collaboration in clean tech R&D between the two countries.

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