“All Our Patent Are Belong To You” (CleanTech Edition)
When we started on our TrashTrack/CleanTech saga, our core crew was made up of gung-ho Wikipedians. So it was only natural that wanted to do everything related to CleanApp — from front-facing website, to mapping, and everything in between — on our beloved Wiki platforms.
We wanted streaming data to be available on an open-source, non-exclusive basis to as many responding parties as possible, and to as many researchers as possible. That underlying Wikian commitment to transparency, collaboration, crowdsourcing, citizen science is our DNA. It’s at the very heart of everything we’ve done and will continue to do at CleanApp.
Nonetheless, the CleanTech/IoT nexus opens up some very lucrative markets, and everybody in the space understands the importance and wisdom of various levels of IP protection — in offensive and in defensive terms. We all know that it’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when” Google/Amazon/Apple release their respective CleanApp-type offerings, which can wipe out the numerous smaller teams that are working so hard — day and night — in this space.
We all know the risks of failure, and yet we keep laboring away under an incentive far greater than some uncertain future payout, general fame, or network recognition. Whether a part of Litterati, WorldCleanupDay, Littergram, OpenLitterMap, SwachhBharatApp, JustGrabBits, SeeClickFix, and so on, we’re all CleanAppers, all doing CleanApp activity. We may have slightly different angles of approach, jurisdictional bounds, and outlooks on what to do with all that data we’re gathering. But from CleanApp’s perspective, we are all on the same side, we are all on the same bigger team.
Despite our varied motivations, as frontline CleanAppers, we are united by something far greater than ourselves: We know the true cost of inaction.
We know just how much harder it is to track a plastic bottle or a styrofoam cup after it has been chopped to bits by a lawnmower who thinks he’s speeding up the “natural decomposition” process; whereas, in reality, those lawnmowers are churning out microplastic faster than any of us can count, individually and collectively.
Litter will not wait for our respective sources of funding to be “secure” or for our market to “mature” so that we can come to a shared understanding about our respective capacities, synergies, and compounded network effects.
Here Comes AmazonVesta!
AmazonVesta goes into Beta-testing in a matter of months, and within six to nine months, AmazonVesta will be on the market. From that point on, Amazon users will be able to tell Alexa to “CleanApp the kitchen!” (or whatever personalized command or action the user wants to use, in whatever language or languages the user wants to speak to Alexa/Vesta in) and we’ll finally have fully autonomous response platforms.
Everyone reading this knows what comes next. Once we have operational cleaning bots in our homes and workplaces, this technology will be scaled to retail (with AmazonVesta demo-ing itself/herself in Whole Foods to the delight of children everywhere, and to the head-scratching and selfie-taking reaction of adults all around the world). From there, Vesta will expand outward, first to parking lots, then to sidewalks, eventually “maturing” into a full-fledged cleaning bot, trash analytics, and “CleanTech optimization engine” — capable of cleaning beaches, playgrounds, really, able to clean anything you tell Alexa to CleanApp, including your clothes, your car, and your backyard.
Because everyone in CleanTech is concerned with … clean outcomes, we expect everyone to welcome AmazonVesta, at first. CleanApp is certainly welcoming this new form of CleanTech and can’t wait to learn more about Vesta’s potential. Indeed, there’s nothing inherently threatening about an Internet-connected cleaning bot. We have WiFi-enabled RoboVacs on the market already, and there hasn’t been much in the way of consumer pushback. What could possibly go wrong?
To begin, everything. If Vesta offers so much utility that it becomes a runaway best seller in its various consumer and enterprise forms, our wonder at “all the things Vesta can do” may occlude legitimate concerns about data privacy, data access, and data security. Late night shows will joke about Vesta “mapping your home” and “watching you in your sleep,” until such time that something awful happens with all that sensitive in-home and hyper-personal data. At that point we will wish we had this conversation now, rather than later.
At municipal scales, AmazonVesta could render services like SeeClickFix & SwachhBharatApp obsolete, possibly faster than any hoped-for M&A strategy or mission pivot. Globally, it could relegate Litterati to a boutique community, as Amazon’s sheer user base would eclipse all competition. OpenLitterMap would likely survive, a potential last refuge for “crypto-anarchists” and #WorldCleanupDay exiles who want to mine some @Littercoin to pay their power bills and AWS balances. But even OpenLitterMap’s growth could plateau if Amazon launched its version of tokenized/monetized litter reporting and litter responding.
The potential of market domination by Amazon or Google isn’t just an existential threat to existing market players. This isn’t just a stern warning to the community to rally around the flag. Amazon’s entry into CleanTech-IoT world raises the possibility of monopolistic cartels or the abuse of dominant market position, resulting in diminished consumer choice, lack of control over pricing, and lower quality service. Again, these are questions that all of us should be thinking about now, rather than bookmarking for later.
This admittedly grim outlook is a much needed mid-2018 reality check for the global litter/hazard mapping community:
With a stable network, the mere promise of response action at some future date, and an OK user-interface, Amazon can effectively put us all out of business.
As we all get ready for the final countdown towards World Cleanup Day on September 15th, we should soberly admit that we still don’t have a single app with truly global litter/hazard reporting functionality, that works indoors and outdoors, that has a frictionless UI, and all the other analytics goodies we crave as a global CleanApp community. As Amazon and BigTech prepare to cut up these juicy new CleanTech/CivicTech/TrashTech markets, we can and we must exert counterbalance.
The only way the existing litter/hazard reporting community can survive the coming BigTech flood is by adopting openly-sourced and clearly-articulated functional interoperability standards that are in BigTech’s and consumers’ individual and shared interests to adopt.
CleanApp as Fulcrum Between Amazon & BigTech
BigTech is uniquely positioned to help in the standard-setting endeavor above. We should welcome BigTech’s help in this respect, and BigTech should welcome our decades of collective expertise working on these extremely complex data and incentive problems. We can expect more and more outreach from BigTech to our community, because it’s in BigTech’s interest to help teams that are helping them get massive new torrents of actionable data.
But any alliances with BigTech must be conditioned on adherence to certain baseline user expectations concerning privacy, data security, and accessibility.
If we don’t foreground access, privacy, security in our respective negotiations, we run the risk of replicating and potentially exacerbating the problem, instead of using BigTech’s entry into our field as an opportunity to scale our solutions to the global waste inequality and waste accountability problems.
As a community, we have very strong “bargaining chips” vis-a-vis BigTech. We have extraordinary capability in numerous spheres (e.g., SeeClickFix’s enterprise-grade network security and data management, not to mention its proven revenue model), industry-leading adoption curves, user-satisfaction, and overall-UI excellence (e.g., Litterati & SwachhBharatApp), legal and conceptual/processual design (e.g., CleanApp), global brand recognition & endorsements (e.g., Leonardo DiCaprio’s endorsement of @WorldCleanupDay, which will likely be followed by others), hardcore open-source and crypto outreach with OpenLitterMap/Littercoin — and these are just several teams of hundreds globally that are leveraging tech advances to do trash/hazard mapping.
Plurality of approaches is only natural; we welcome it, insofar as it can spur greater innovation and lead to collaborative relationships that push the frontiers of our sector. But the time has come for the global CleanTech startup field to think seriously about coordinated (1) intellectual property (IP); (2) interoperability; (3) standardization strategies, including the scope, nature, and limits of BigTech participation in such an enterprise.
The tech sector is a global pioneer in patent consortiums and IP mindshare. The only reason we are able to build these cross-border projects today is because of the standard-setting visions of early Internet pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee (who gave humanity http:, which is still the backbone of the Internet) and subsequent standard-setting organizations like the WiFi Alliance and Bluetooth Special Interest Group (BluetoothSIG).
As active participants in this space for the past five years, it seems clear that the time for a CleanTech/IoT equivalent to the WiFi Alliance has come.
A CleanApp standard-setting alliance, whatever it’s called, gives all of us far more power over the future of this planet-saving-tech than any of us can ever hope to wield if we decide to “go it alone.”
In 2020, 2025, 2030, and beyond, a CleanApp Alliance gives all of us a seat at the head of the re-negotiation table between Google, Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Facebook, Twitter, and so on, over the future of their respective SmartHome and SmartCity projects. By securing its place at that table now, CleanApp can serve as a fulcrum between these various competing interests.
Shared vision today gives us a future platform from which to assure that the world isn’t split into AmazonCities and AlibabaTowns, MicrosoftVilles and AppleBurgs, but instead, continues on a more pluralistic and egalitarian path towards a SmartPlanet.
Anticipating the challenges and opportunities presented by BigTech participation, and in light of titanic shifts in user data security and data privacy expectations, it seems imperative that CleanTech/IoT actors be prepared to revisit and reassess all previous assumptions regarding tech transfer and data ownership as part of this anticipated standardization process.
Lack of coordination, on the other hand, is tantamount to full surrender. Together, we can serve as interlocutors and participants in the BigTech decisions regarding the future of a SmartPlanet. Together, we’re citizens, urging common sense and democratic SmartPlanet solutions. Apart, an irrespective of the size of our “core team,” we’re just “users” bound by different “user agreements” we have very little control over.
U.S. Patent Law as Open-Source Disclosure?
CleanApp’s experience with tech transfer and hoped-for posture in this market has been an open book from start. Even as we evangelized the virtues of the “Wiki approach,” we simultaneously sought the strongest forms of IP protection for what we saw as particularly novel aspects of our crowdsourcing and analytics processes. Why?
Patent rights seem to be the very definition of closed-source and proprietary thinking, do they not? How is that IP stance even remotely compatible with a commitment to open-source development?
The answer may surprise folks who are not familiar with U.S. patent law. But in the U.S., patents are a form of open-source disclosure. In exchange for a government monopoly over the patented technology for a certain period of time, the inventor has to disclose the nature of the invention, which falls into the public domain at the expiration of the patent period. This presents a nice confluence of interests and incentives, as the inventor is incentivized to commercialize the patented matter within the patent period. And commercialization pays off only when the inventor hustles to create a market for the patented tech.
By contrast, a closed-source form of IP is something like a trade secret (recipe to Coca-Cola) aka “tech knowhow” (Apple’s proprietary messenger/FaceTime processes). Under U.S. law, patent protection requires disclosure of the invention, with some extremely limited exceptions. That disclosure is what allows the “market” to test the viability of the good, process, or service that’s built on the patented technology.
At CleanApp, the only closed-source IP we have are pending patent/trademark applications that have not been published, and lots of legal documents. Because of our unique market role as a standard-setting organization, we have been affirmatively transparent about our IP posture & our broader IP strategy. We want to keep it that way.
All Our Patent Are Belong To You, Sort Of
Our model for how our IP portfolio can serve as a tech accelerator is none other than Elon Musk’s infamous “All Our Patent Are Belong to You” move on behalf of Tesla.
Journalists covered that 2014 episode as a unilateral waiver of patent rights, with headline after headline proclaiming that Tesla was “giving away” its patents to “the public” to spur innovation in the electric vehicle market.
The reality was far more nuanced. The announcement wasn’t a waiver of patent rights nor was it a strictly benevolent move. It was a shrewd strategic move and a master stroke in PR “narrative dominance.” Legally, it likely succeeded in preempting an all-out patent war, not by Tesla against established automakers, but the other way around. After Musk declared in his humanizing and quirky way that that “All Our Patent Are Belong to You,” no jury in the land would have gone against Tesla, irrespective of the strength of the legal cases the big auto manufacturers might have had against Tesla.
Musk explained that this was done “in the spirit of the open source movement[,]” and that, because all-too-often, patents don’t benefit the inventors “but rather entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession.” But there were three caveats in Musk’s statement, doubtlessly inserted by a good Tesla lawyer:
(1) Tesla assumed a defense-only posture, signaling that Tesla would not initiate lawsuits against anyone who wants to use Tesla technology, yet leaving Tesla with the right to use its patents defensively in the event of suit by a competitor;
(2) Tesla gave license to use its IP to anyone who would use its technology in “good faith,” which is a term of art in legalese, meaning, at a minimum, in an honest manner and consistent with commercial reasonableness;
(3) Tesla made clear that widespread adoption of its patents by its competitors — along “common” lines — would benefit everyone.
As Musk wrote:
“We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.”
In the four years since, it’s not clear what steps, if any, Tesla & its competitors have taken to establish that “common […] technology platform” for electric vehicles. On the one hand, the “All Our Patent Are Belong To You” seems to be serving its function of preventing patent wars. That’s a very good sign.
On the other hand, lack of functional interoperability in EV chargers, access to the Supercharger network, etc., may be early signs of growing tension. “Common tech platform” could well mean something else entirely in automotive industry jargon; perhaps it establishes an expectation of what are known as “grant-back” rights, giving Tesla the legal right to use competitors’ improvements to the batch of “All Our Patent Are Belong To You” patents on an uncompensated basis. We don’t know, but we’ll continue prodding @elonmusk & Tesla Motors for updates.
There are three key lessons from the Tesla patent strategy: (1) Tesla earned the power to assume this posture because it had worked tirelessly to put up a “wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of [its] Palo Alto headquarters” to begin with; (2) patents can accelerate further advances in CleanTech by discharging the core educational function of patent — teaching competitors and the public about the utility gains from adopting this patented technology, versus other approaches; (3) even when they are said to “Belong to You,” patents are a double-edged sword and have to be wielded very carefully.
On the one hand, patents give patent holders somewhat stronger negotiation leverage when approaching much bigger incumbents. On the other hand, as Musk reminds us:
After Zip2, when I realized that receiving a patent really just meant that you bought a lottery ticket to a lawsuit, I avoided them whenever possible.
Like Tesla, we at CleanApp Foundation believe that (1) CleanApp, (2) other teams making litter reporting apps (like @WorldCleanupDay, @Litterati, @SeeClickFix, OpenLitterMap, SwachhBharatApp and others), and (3) the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.
We invite you to share your vision of the ideal mindshare or “tech transfer” architecture — one that would align the disparate interests of a growing number of service providers through transparent and easy to understand incentive structures. To us at CleanApp, this step seems crucial for our continued success. Without it, we’re opening the door for BigTech domination, on BigTech’s terms.
If a patent-sharing approach can work in the rabidly competitive automotive sector, then it can certainly work within a trash/hazard tracking community. We have much to gain from baseline standard-level coordination, and a lot to lose from further fragmentation. We look forward to hearing from you.