If you ask me

The EU needs to be more forthright with its electronics labelling - like China.  Also, ever heard of the term 'copyleft'?

A long way to go

Almost every new product and datasheet will have a lot of marketing time spent on its green credentials. An important part of this is at either end of the product's lifecycle, to identify whether hazardous materials have been used in the components and whether they can be recycled responsibly.

In the EU the RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) directive came into force in mid-2006. This restricts the use of six 'hazardous' materials in electronic and electrical equipment by setting the maximum level of lead, mercury, cadmium and three other substances permitted in any individual component of a product.

Specifically, the directive states that no component of any electronic product should contain more than 0.1 per cent lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls or polybrominated diphenyl ether by weight. Cadmium levels are restricted to 0.01 per cent of a component.

In practice, however, potential reliability issues mean that the networking industry is allowed to ignore the lead restrictions in order to continue to use lead-based solder. This is known as RoHS 5 (or sometimes RoHS 5/6, as only five of the six chemicals are restricted).

The directive does not require any form of product labelling to show that a product meets either RoHS 5 or 6, although most manufacturers have their own label. The RoHS 5 exemption is due to expire in 2010, and a few companies such as Allied Telesis are already working at the RoHS 6 standard.

The picture is different in China, where a government directive on 'Management Methods for Controlling Pollution by Electronic Information Products' came into force in March 2007. That legislation, developed independently of the EU RoHS directives, regulates the same six major substances and has stipulated the same maximum concentrations.

What makes the Chinese RoHS directive more effective than the European version is that in China it is mandatory to label products. If a product does not contain any of the six hazardous substances above the maximum concentrations allowed, it must be marked with a specific symbol. And, if a product has any substances that exceed the maximum allowed concentration value, a different label must be used. The label shows the Environment-Friendly Use Period (or EFUP), which is the time in years under which hazardous or toxic substances will not leak out of the product, or change the product in such a way that causes severe environmental pollution.

Any products with this label are also required to provide a Hazardous Substance Table that discloses which substances it contains. A far cry from the vague certificates of compliance with EU RoHS, or email assurances that the parts used are compliant with EU RoHS.

The EU has a lot to learn about RoHS from the Chinese. The EU does not require product labels - China does. The EU does not specify the life expectancy of a product - China does. The EU does not require recycled and marked packaging - China does. The EU still has a long way to go.

Melvyn Wray is senior vice president for product marketing, EMEA, at Allied Telesis

(www.alliedtelesis.co.uk [new window])

Degrees of freedom

One of the ironies of the West's intellectual property system is that, without strong copyright, the 'copyleft' of open-source software popularised by Richard Stallman could not exist.

The term 'copyleft' probably does more to confuse people about the nature of open-source software than anything. While a good, easy-to-remember slogan that emphasises the contrast between open- and closed-source software, 'copyleft' makes it sound as though it is based on a parallel set of laws to those used to organise copyright.

In reality, copyleft is a simple and, unusually for legal documents, easy-to-read contract between a supplier and a user that provides the user with a lot more right than the usual commercial contract. But the user has a responsibility too: to give back whatever improvements they make in the name of the common good.

For many computer users, open-source software provides a degree of freedom they cannot find in conventional closed-source offerings. And this is something they see as vital in an environment where the trend is towards greater monitoring and control of user behaviour as it becomes easier to use the Internet for these reporting channels. Dealing with open-source software can be a chore, but users at least have the choice to use it when they see their privacy or freedom curtailed.

Other, nascent industries have looked at the rise of open-source software and wondered whether it could improve freedom in their own sectors. Biotechnology is an industry that is almost synonymous with IP protection. But it is one that cannot use copyleft because the IP mechanisms in use are based on patents and trademarks, not copyright. It is only an early court decision in the US that placed software in the realm of copyright not patents, although patents have played a role in recent years in cases that involve open-source software.

Applying open-source principles to biotechnology, therefore, is a much more expensive and problematic option. It's entirely possible to draw up a contract that demands that people who use a technology cannot 'encumber' it with conditions that the original developers never intended. But to back it up, you need patents, which cost a lot more than copyright.

A kind of 'semi-commons' has emerged in the world of electronics largely due to the threat of mutual annihilation were a major company to try to enforce its patent portfolio. People in biotech look enviously at this world, but it is far from perfect. It is way too easy for companies that have no fear of being countersued using all manner of patents, whether frivolous or valid, in pursuit of a ransom. This cannot be the objective of any emerging industry, even if it looks an easy solution.

The old IP system does not need to be torn down - copyleft demonstrates that - but governments need to look much more closely at the way case law has evolved and reset parts of the system to ensure that it does the job it was created to do: reward innovators for their work in exchange for public knowledge.

Chris Edwards, E&T electronics editor

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