The great intellectual property (IP) debate has been stoked up recently by discussion of issues such as ‘open source’ technology, and also here on Thoughts recently with the slice of anti-IP rhetoric that concluded Tristram Carfrae’s Engineers and evolution blog.

What’s interesting is the gulf in attitudes to IP that exists between sectors such as film, where there is a major industry lobby in favour of strong IP protection, and construction, which is characterised by a more laid-back attitude. So what makes engineers so different?

It’s true that the construction industry has been comparatively lethargic in embracing IP rights. Buildings can contain innovations which, in any other industry, the author would rush to patent or register. But construction seems unexcited by the availability of such ‘protection’.

The result? By and large, designers can solve problems from first principles without fear of straying into a patent ‘thicket’ which would constrain them had our industry been more IP-aware.

Some would argue that the lack of awareness is a symptom of a broader apathy to research and development. Certainly, it seems true that whilst other industries such as IT have seen technological advances which would render a practitioner from the 1950’s open jawed, the construction sector sometimes seems to move more slowly.

So should we be advocating a radical change of approach for our industry and a tightening up on IP?

No. First, the costs of enforcing IP rights are enormous and the industry can ill afford to channel more of its limited profits into the pockets of the legal profession. But more importantly, the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, ocean acidification, waste management and the myriad of other connected issues which fill our newspapers, require us to embrace collaboration if we are to have any chance of addressing these issues in the diminishing timescales available.

The internet offers extraordinary opportunities to solve problems collaboratively. In so doing we can increase understanding between individuals, organisations and cultures. The best thinking can be shared and built upon, and the results will speak for themselves.

Take BIM, for example. Rigorous protection and enforcement of IP rights by project participants could undermine the entire concept.

There will always be some exceptions – for example construction products which require an IP ‘wrapper’ to secure investment. But the common ground of engineers and architects should remain clear for collaboration if we are to make the steps required to secure our long term future on planet Earth.