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Whose Intellectual Property Can I Rip off Without Worry?: Dumb Question

Evolution has handed down to us in the form of plants and animals — for free! — more than 3 billion years of design and engineering research.

That's the theme throughout the work of Janine Benyus, a biologist whose 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, makes the argument that inventors, designers and engineers should scour the natural world for useful and adaptable innovations. The book led to the creation of her consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8 , and a nonprofit that educates students and trains professionals to seek design solutions in nature.

Dumb Question: If nature is so great and terrific, how come it didn't develop intellectual property protections to prevent you from going in and ripping it off?

Janine Benyus: You know, I think if we begin, as a species, to mimic the most successful organisms, it's to all organisms' benefit. We're not going to fit in here unless we learn their 'patents' as quickly as possible and actually put them into use. These patents are not something you hide from each other. They're sort of best practices.

DQ: Meaning the composite genome of everything? Is that what you mean by best practices list?

JB: The best practices list is the list of technologies, natural technologies, whether it's chemistry, or drag-reduction technologies, or whatever it is. These best-practices are how life makes things, powers itself, recycles everything. It's how organisms managed to thrive for 3.8 billion years.

Previous 'Dumb Questions':

We're basically this very young species, only 200,000 years old. We're one of the newcomers, and we're going through the same process that other species go through, which is, how do I keep myself alive while taking care of the place that's going to keep my offspring alive? And if you don't learn how to do both of those things in the natural world, you essentially go extinct.

We're trying to figure out how to keep the place in shape, to take care of the place that's going to take care of our offspring. And the way you do that is you figure out a way to do chemistry without persistent toxins. You figure out a way to use the minimum amount of materials, and the minimum amount of energy, and you figure out a way to get your needs met locally. I feel like [organisms] are sitting there sort of waving their arms saying, "Look over here! For god's sake, don't do it like that!"

And for me, that's what this sustainability quest is, practice by practice. We're trying to replace old, maladapted practices with well-adapted practices — meaning well-adapted for conditions on Earth over the long haul. They're not hidden patents. It's more: if everybody practices these ideas we'll all live.

So they're not worried they're losing on licensing royalties. They're not losing out at all. The royalties are their offspring get to live. We gotta figure out how to do that.

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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