In light of larger public policy debates over intellectual property and climate change, this article considers patent practice, law, and policy in respect of biofuels. This debate has significant implications for public policy discussions in respect of energy independence, food security, and climate change. The first section of the paper provides a network analysis of patents in respect of biofuels across the three generations. It provides empirical research in respect of patent subject matter, ownership, and strategy in respect of biofuels. The second section provides a case study of significant patent litigation over biofuels. There is an examination of the biofuels patent litigation between the Danish company Novozymes, and Danisco and DuPont. The third section examines flexibilities in respect of patent law and clean technologies in the context of the case study of biofuels. In particular, it explores the debate over substantive doctrinal matters in respect of biofuels – such as patentable subject matter, technology transfer, patent pools, compulsory licensing, and disclosure requirements. The conclusion explores the relevance of the debate over patent law and biofuels to the larger public policy discussions over energy independence, food security, and climate change.The authors comment
Biofuels have a long and rich pre-history. At the World's Fair in 1900, Rudolf Diesel – the inventor and patent holder - and the Otto car company exhibited a diesel engine, which ran on peanut oil (Tomes et al., 2011, p. 5). Recognising the value of food crops for fuel, Diesel observed that “power can… be produced from the heat of the sun, which is always available for agricultural purposes, even when all natural stores of solid and liquid fuels are exhausted” (Goodall, 2009, p. 166). Similarly, the car manufacturer, Henry Ford, observed in 1925: “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach [a type of tree] out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust – almost anything” (Goodall, 2009, p. 166). He rhapsodized: “There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented.” (Goodall, 2009, p. 166).
In his leading work, Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk, James Smith provides a definition and classification of modern “biofuels”:
Biofuel refers to energy derived from biomass through processes such as combustion, gasification or fermentation. These processes yield energy in the form of liquid or gas fuels. A range of biological sources can act as feedstock for these processes, including dedicated energy crops (such as grasses and trees), traditional crops (sugar cane and oilseed) as well as crop residues and degradable waste (for example, wheat straw, rice hulls, and organic waste). The resulting fuel can be used in cooking, heating, electricity generation and transport (Smith, 2010, p. 15).
Biofuels are defined in terms of various generations. Smith thus observed that first-generation biofuels “rely on food crops that boast readily accessible sugars, starches and oils as their feedstock” (Smith, 2010, p. 15). He noted: “The most common feedstocks are sugar cane… sugar beet, maize, wheat and other starchy cereals, such as barley, sorghum and rye” (Smith, 2010, p. 19). Smith defined second-generation biofuels as those which “rely on bio-chemical and thermochemical conversion” (Smith, 2010, p. 19). Second-generation biofuels rely on feedstocks – such as “perennial grasses such as switchgrass, trees such as poplar or willow and residues and wastes derived from agricultural production” (Smith, 2010, p. 20). Moreover, Smith noted that “third-generation biofuels focus on improving the feedstock” (Smith, 2010, p. 21). The third generation of biofuels has used algae, microalgae, and seaweed.
There has been a discussion of whether there exists a fourth generation of biofuels focused upon biotechnology. James Smith observed: “Even more theoretically, fourth-generation technologies hypothetically offer entirely custom-made feedstocks and microbes to process fuel” (Smith, 2010, p. 21). There has been much public and private investment in the various generations of biofuels. James Smith observed: “Over the last decade, increasing awareness of the impacts of climate change and dwindling supplies of fossil fuels can be seen to have generated investment in fields such as biofuels, climate-ready crops and storage of agricultural genetic resources”. In the United States, President Barack Obama has emphasized that biofuels are part of his energy independence policy: “Biofuels are an important part of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home” (The White House, 2011). There has also been much interest in the use of biofuels in Canada (de Beer, 2011), and South American countries, such as Brazil (La Rovere et al., 2011). In the Garnaut Review 2011, Ross Garnaut argued that “Australia has an important role to play in research and development on biofuels” (Garnaut, 2011, p. 125). In 2011, the Gillard Government established the $20 million Australian Biofuels Research Institute (Ferguson, 2011). The Institute's work is designed to provide “support for the potential of next-generation biofuels to increase Australia's energy security and diversify sources of liquid fuel supply” (Ferguson, 2011). In the European Union, the European Commission has established a directive to promote the use of biofuels and other renewable fuels for transportation (European Commission, 2013). There has also been interest in biofuels in Africa (Juma, 2011; Matondi et al., 2011). The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials has sought to develop a global standard and certification scheme for the sustainable production of biomass and biofuels.
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, observed in 2009: “Biofuels are neither a panacea nor a pariah but like all technologies they represent both opportunities and challenges” (United Nations Environment Programme, 2009). The Nuffield Council on Bioethics reflected that biofuels have become part of a larger policy debate over the energy crisis, food security, biodiversity, and climate change. The Council observed that the hope was that biofuels would provide “a new source of income for farmers and revenue from ‘clean’ technology, as well as renewable – and therefore endless – sources of fuel, leading to far less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than fossil fuels” (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2011, xvii). The Council noted that investment in biofuels had been encouraged by “increasing worries over energy security in the face of growing demand, dwindling supplies of oil, and international conflicts and wars” (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2011, xvii). Moreover, “the growing awareness of the dangers of global climate change reinforced the challenge to find alternatives to fossil fuels as the dominant form of energy” (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2011, xvii).
Critics, though, have questioned whether biofuels should be classified as ‘renewable energy’ or ‘sustainable’. Tony Seba (2014) from Stanford University contends that biofuels are obsolete and uncompetitive in comparison to solar energy and wind power. He also argues that biofuels are water intensive and damaging to food security. Seba is also critical of government subsidies of biofuels: “The only thing that's renewable about the agricultural biofuels industry is the special-interest lobby groups that represents it in places like Washington, Brazilia, and Brussels” (Seba, 2014: p. 210).
This article considers the various legal and political debates over patent law and biofuels, and the concomitant implications for energy independence, food security, and climate change. Smith has observed that biofuels are the subject of much debate: ‘Biofuels fire the imagination of policy-makers, entrepreneurs, researchers and governments because of the possibility of being all things to all people’ (Smith, 2010, p. 6). He warns that biofuels also risk becoming ‘objects of contestation, or ideas around which ideologies and politics are fought, much as agricultural biotechnologies were before them’ (Smith, 2010, p. 6). The first section provides a network analysis of patents in respect of biofuels across the three generations. In particular, it highlights fundamental subject matter, clusters of biofuels, and influential patents. It also focuses upon the fragmented and diverse ownership in the field of patent law and biofuels. The second section looks at patent litigation over biofuels. As a case study, it considers the ongoing conflict between the Danish company Novozymes, and Danisco and DuPont in respect of biofuel patents. The third section examines patent law, policy, and practice in respect of clean technologies – focusing upon biofuels. In particular, it explores the debate over substantive doctrinal matters in respect of biofuels – such as patentable subject matter, technology transfer, patent pools, compulsory licensing, and disclosure requirements. The conclusion explores the relevance of the debate over intellectual property and biofuels to the larger public policy discussions over energy independence, food security, biodiversity, and climate change.