Open IP, social responsibility and the new game

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post over at Steria Exchange outlining why the threat of litigation over digital copyright infringements highlighted the need for a ‘commercial commons’ – a pool of information, software, media and other resources that could be shared freely among individuals and organisations. This could benefit everyone enormously – making open web collaboration easier and helping businesses  to innovate products and services far more rapidly and cheaply than in the past. Some of the mechanisms to enable this are already well established, including initiatives such as open source and Creative Commons. But while these point the way forward, they will need to be built upon and championed more widely.

Opening up intellectual property also has clear social benefits. The front page of Saturday’s Guardian reported that Andrew Witty, the new boss of drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), plans to put all its proprietary chemicals and processes that could help find new drugs for neglected diseases into an open ‘patent pool’, so they can be freely shared by researchers everywhere. In an unprecedented multi-pronged initiative, the company is also slashing the prices of drugs for the developing world, reinvesting 20% of profits it makes in the poorest countries in hospitals, clinics and staff for those countries, and spearheading a collaborative hunt for treatments to tropical diseases.

This bears out what I wrote in my opening post on this blog about the need for enlightened businesses to put social and community responsibilities ahead of short-term profit. Witty clearly understands this and is to be highly commended for making a radical move that marks out GSK as a pioneering corporate player of the new game. As he told the Guardian: “I think the shareholders understand this and it’s my job to make sure I can explain it. I think we can. I think it’s absolutely the kind of thing large global companies need to be demonstrating, that they’ve got a more balanced view of the world than short-term returns.”

Commenting on GSK’s move in Monday’s Telegraph, George Poynter echoed this message, arguing the credit crunch could herald a new moral economy. “In a new environment in which earnings growth is less available to avaricious shareholders, competition begins to have looser parameters and the demand on directors is not so much to prosper as to survive. GSK may well be recognising that its own survival, and that of its competitors, is dependent on the survival of its markets. To serve its markets is, in the long run, to serve its shareholders. This is an important development, because it implies that the market economy has to adjust structurally before corporate morality can follow,” Poynter wrote.

I share Poynter’s view, but the reasons for GSK’s move go beyond both altruism and the long-term survival of its markets. This will also boost the company’s reputation among the public and governments, as well as putting pressure on its competitors to follow suit (which Witty has called for). More profoundly, it illustrates how social responsibility is central to the hunt for talent. As a global player in the pharmaceutical industry, GSK needs to attract the best scientists and researchers in order to stay ahead of the competition. Most of these people would relish the chance to work on projects, or for a company, that helped to solve pressing real-world problems, rather than just developing lucrative products to line shareholders’ pockets. At a stroke, Witty has made GSK the most attractive pharma company for the most ambitious and talented researchers in the world.

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