The Ambitious Plan to Save the Patent System That’s Drawing Millions from Top Funders

By most accounts, the patent system is a disaster. A murky and litigious chess game of corporations secretly jockeying and hoarding to control intellectual property from science and tech research. A mostly unknown Australian project seeks to change that game, and big funders like Gates and Moore are on board.

The Lens is a project of the Queensland University of Technology and nonprofit Cambia that attempts to plot out the landscape of global patents, much like a Wikipedia of invention, to bring more equity and accessibility to the science and tech. It’s a bold plan, and the implications for the research world and global health and food systems have spurred some of the world’s biggest funders to buy into it. 

For example, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation recently gave half a million to support its launch. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation just gave $1.6 million to the project. Gates gave $3 million back in 2008 while The Lens was in its infancy. Lemelson Foundation has also supported the endeavor.

So what is The Lens, and why are these powerful science and health funders so interested in a website that collects patents?

Well, from the standpoint of Lens Director Richard Jefferson, the patent system favors corporate cloak-and-dagger tactics and actively prevents developing countries and independent scientists from seeking solutions to the world’s greatest problems. Patents were meant to be a deal you made with government to help spread good ideas—you reveal your scientific or tech breakthrough to the world, and you get to control it exclusively for a limited period of time. 

But patent lawyers have become increasingly secretive about how much information they reveal in patents. Companies known derogatively as “patent trolls” make a living off of this tactic, also hoarding hundreds of thousands of patents, an arms race of who has the right to profit from innovation. Patent offices can’t keep up, meaning there is no coherent system to define who has discovered what, and who owns what rights.

All this is especially bad for independent or smaller researchers. Jefferson told Grist:

The real problem is that the people who need new solutions most, like farmers in developing countries, are isolated in a system that discourages ground-level innovation. Instead, we have a small group of companies in rich countries, with a stranglehold on patents, designing all the solutions to fit their own business models. This system works primarily to bring in money for these companies, to maintain their privilege, and to exclude competition. 

The goal of The Lens, using crowdsourcing and machine learning, is to piece together a comprehensive and easily navigable map that researchers around the world can access to better understand and use our collective scientific knowledge. It will also allow the community to identify and call out trolls. 

Jefferson likes to compare intellectual property to mapmaking (using a great story about 16th century merchant routes). When countries hoarded maps of the world, global prosperity suffered. When maps of the world were widespread, prosperity soared. The Lens is trying to make a map of the world of science and technology that anyone, rich or poor, can access.

This justice issue is likely what has caught the attention of Moore and Gates, especially related to rapidly developing genetic research. With the patenting of genetic technology, there are serious social concerns tied to a narrow group of researchers or companies cornering medical or agricultural innovations. 

For funders interested in both global health and the vibrancy of the research world, a project like the Lens must present a thrilling possibility to level the playing field in a way even their tremendous grantmaking typically can’t.