Intellectual Property In The Age Of Open Sourcing: Who Owns It, And How Do They Get Paid?

By Wendy W. Fok, Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture

The Internet of Things, as you may have noticed, is changing the world. Architecture, design and construction aren’t immune, as young architects no longer line up to work for the field’s undisputed stars, instead launching self-directed crowdsourced projects and using Kickstarter campaigns as a means to fund their own projects and seeking collaborators for projects big and small.

With projects like WikiHouse and the Resilient Modular Systems 2.0 digital platforms, now people can use a smartphone to connect with a manufacturer to order their house.

In some ways, that makes sense. Design no longer lives in a locked filing cabinet. The conversation I’m interested in is the virtual estate – what becomes of the ownership of digital property? (Who owns digital property). If you design a digital system, do you lose ownership if it’s widely reproduced in manufacturing?

The question arose in the 1990s with Napster, the internet company that allowed people to share music, in the form of MP3 files, with their peers. The industry panicked: Would people still pay for music if it wasn’t in the form of a physical compact disc?

The answer to that is still evolving, although iTunes and other music streaming services suggest a qualified “yes.”

But the details of how the internet and open source software changes who performs specific tasks and, perhaps equally important, who gets paid for that work, are still unresolved. Ownership at this stage in the contemporary digital conversation, therefore, becomes a more active concern than Authorship.

How do you protect your work?

That already is disrupting traditional views of innovation, and the global movement toward building a more sustainable future – increasing use of alternative energy, designing “smart” buildings that automatically adjust lighting, heating and air conditioning to conserve power – is a key example.

Current intellectual property law favors the creator and suggests work can’t be taken without payment or changed. That’s outdated. (Current law favors creators with privatized venture funding, or corporate backing, with deep pockets, i.e.: Google and companies that have funds to patent and trademark their designs and ideas.)

What happens, for example, if a product is translated into code and produced on a 3D printer? Are digital footprints developable concerns for creators of the built environment? Organizations, including the U.S. Library of Congress, are dealing with the thorny issue of sharing digital properties while still protecting their value.

The implications are enormous for medical privacy, private property rights, energy efficiency and other areas.

So-called “smart” building systems are a hot topic of research, as scientists work to develop living buildings, which can learn how occupants behave and adapt to that behavior automatically, without the intervention of a building manager.

But the concept relies on data collected from sensors located throughout the building. To whom does that information belong?

Similarly, what happens when an architect designs a house, and the plans end up online? It’s easy, and common, for people to download the files and buy the plans. Common, too, for a contractor to copy the design of a house built and designed by someone else.

John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher and political theorist, established common theories about ownership – back then, it was ownership of land, cattle and other physical properties – which influenced the founding fathers of the United States.

But there is no virtual line in the sand with digital property. You might own a building, but information harvested from that building detailing energy use and similar data, can be equally important. It’s the same with data collected by toll road agencies about the use of your EZ Tag.

Who owns that? Maybe Elon Musk has suggested a middle ground, registering the Tesla battery as open source software, meaning anyone can access the information and work to improve or change it, while retaining the patent. Or, Alejandro Aravena’s Elemental Open Sourced social housing construction plans, which open up the field of architecture for social good. Those allow for innovation without giving away the company.

“We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform,” Musk wrote on the Tesla website. “Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.”

Today’s millennials share that sense of social good as they seek to make a difference. They are interested in creating products, but they want something bigger than an app or a new sneaker. A lot of people in their 20s and 30s think of design, product development and architecture as bigger than real estate.

So the culture shift is well underway. Even architecture, long a field that values ownership, originality and being the first to do something, is getting there.

The work itself is evolving, too, from traditional “architect” to more of a creative director, such as myself, where the responsibility of the architect becomes a conductor of a plethora of issues, not only for the design of a structure but for what happens within that structure, from heating and air conditioning to coding the technologies for a building to the storage of digital data within a building.

My students know they need more business savvy than architects of a past era in order to successfully work with the community.

The role of the architect continues to become an integrated design proposition.  Architects have always been salesmen. Now we need to be hustlers and entrepreneurs.

UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.


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