As people around the world wrestle with how to manage the global pandemic, it’s clear that development of testing kits, vaccines, medicine, medical equipment, and software can’t happen soon enough. The Open COVID Pledge was launched in April to help speed this process, by encouraging organizations to make their patents and copyrights freely available in the fight against COVID-19.
“It is a practical and moral imperative that every tool we have at our disposal be applied to develop and deploy technologies on a massive scale without impediment,” the pledge reads. In signing on, companies and universities agree to give free licenses until a year after the World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus pandemic to be over. The pledge is a promise that has legal force, especially if others rely on it and start to make and sell their own products based on the pledgor’s IP.
The response has been heartening. Very quickly, universities, nonprofits, and big-name technology companies made the pledge including Amazon, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft, which collectively own hundreds of thousands of patents.
The initiative was spearheaded by a coalition of scientists, lawyers, and advocates who came together over the course of just a few weeks this spring. In this crisis, there isn’t time to waste, says Michael Eisen, professor and HHMI investigator at the University of California, Berkeley and editor-in-chief of eLife. This initiative is one way to help accelerate progress by reducing barriers to innovation.
“The idea quickly gained momentum. Once we realized we all saw the same need, we dropped what we were doing to make it happen,” says Eisen, who developed the pledge website as one of the coalitions founding members. “It seemed like a way to be catalytic and do something useful to help the effort.”
Online users have two options to get involved. An organization can “Support” the Open COVID Pledge, expressing institutional support without any legal obligation. Or, an organization or individual can “Make the Pledge,” promising the public free use of its intellectual property (IP) to fight the COVID pandemic.
“Solutions will come from people doing science and technology,” says Eisen, who emphasizes the high stakes price of needless delays. “This is about making sure that IP doesn’t get in their way and does not become an obstacle… This is the time for maximum speed.”
The aim is to boost cooperation and encourage innovation, explains another member of the pledge steering committee, Mark Lemley, a law professor at Stanford University who specializes in intellectual property, and one of the pledge’s authors.
“Companies might be reluctant to do this if they thought they were the only ones, so the commitment provides a way for universities and companies to feel comfortable that they are not alone,” Lemley says. “I hope that they will not use IP as a tool to gain a competitive advantage in the short term at the expense of public health.”
Jorge Contreras, a professor of law at the University of Utah and author of books on intellectual property, is another volunteer in the core group of 10 in the coalition. He helped draft the language in the pledge and different types of licenses for those interested in the pledge or customizing it.
Through the pledge, companies could share open ventilator designs that can help provide equipment used for COVID patients. There is potential for the development of software for user tracking and artificial intelligence models for disease spread. “We don’t even know all of the applications,” Contreras says.
“There are big bottlenecks in supply chains that are making it harder for equipment and other useful products to get to hospitals and people.” Contreras says. “One of the reasons is that new manufacturers are reluctant to jump in because of the threats from intellectual property. Hopefully this will encourage companies thinking of helping to do so with less fear. That would be a really big accomplishment.”
The next step for the initiative is to collect stories to show how the pledge is being useful. In the long-term, Eisen he says wonders about impact of this crisis on science.
“Will this become about ways of making intellectual property sharable more generally? Right now, we are doing what we can,” Eisen says. “I’m hoping when this is over, people will want to see solutions and be less tolerant of unnecessary obstacles. They will look back and realize that it’s important that science works fast.”