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A medical giant is sharing its ventilator designs. Will that change anything?

April 6, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

As the U.S. faces a critical shortage of ventilators for coronavirus patients, medical device maker Medtronic stepped up with an unusual offer last week: It would share its ventilator technology and allow any company to manufacture it.

It was a bold gesture during a crisis, especially for a giant corporation accustomed to guarding its intellectual property. And Medtronic says it has already received a large number of requests for its ventilator designs.

The company’s decision to open up its technology could help alleviate the ventilator shortage and even provide a model to increase production of other medical supplies during the crisis. Experts, however, caution that such an outcome is far from certain, especially in light of the license Medtronic is using to share its ventilators.

What Medtronic is offering

Founded in 1949, Minneapolis-based Medtronic makes products ranging from pacemakers to insulin pumps and operates in 140 countries. The company’s sheer scale is one reason the media took notice when it announced last week that it would “share ventilation design specifications to accelerate efforts to increase global ventilator production.”

In practice, this led Medtronic to share blueprints for one of its ventilator models, as well as circuit board drawings, files of source code, and CAD software designs. In order to access all this, companies must register on Medtronic’s website and agree to the terms of a “permissive license.”

According to Brian Love, a law professor at Santa Clara University who specializes in intellectual property, the license in question is reminiscent of those used to distribute open-source software. He points in particular to the “Modifications” section of Medtronic’s license, which requires anyone who makes a ventilator based on the company’s designs to distribute it under an identical license.

In theory, this means that those who decide to build on Medtronic’s technology can’t turn around and force customers to pay intellectual-property royalties—at least for now.

According to Richard Gold, an authority on innovation policy at McGill University, a potential hitch in the Medtronic license is that it’s in force only until October 2024 or whenever the World Health Organization declares the pandemic to be over.

This means, says Gold, that some companies may be reluctant to start making the ventilators because of the short term of the license. He added, however, that firms seeking to enter the ventilator field just for the duration of the crisis would find the license to be useful.

Gold also noted that Medtronic was unclear in its announcement about whether it was sharing all of its designs and data or only some of it. The company declined to answer a question about that point.

Overall, Gold described the license as “positive but vague” and said it should have been written to ensure those using Medtronic’s technology can’t themselves demand intellectual-property royalties after the ventilator license expires.

“My feeling is that a senior VP decided to make the technology available as part of good corporate responsibility, and then it went to the lawyers who, in an attempt to protect the company too much given the circumstances, made the gesture less effective than it could have been,” said Gold.

A Tesla precedent and early response

Love, the Santa Clara professor, likened the Medtronic initiative to a similar gesture in 2014 by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who announced he would “open up” the company’s patents. That initiative, which amounted to Musk saying Tesla would not sue anyone for using its tech, provided a wave of publicity for the company. But it also did not appear to have any long-term effect in terms of other companies adopting the technology, says Love.

In the case of Medtronic, though, it appears the company’s “permissive license” offer may already be having a real-world impact.

“There have been more than 50,000 downloads so far of the IP associated with the PB560 [ventilator] and more every day,” Medtronic spokesperson Ben Petok told Fortune on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on Thursday that two medical manufacturers in Minnesota were studying the Medtronic designs with the intention of making ventilators. And days earlier, Elon Musk confirmed he was in talks with Medtronic to produce the products.

While the Medtronic initiative appears to be off to a promising start, others expressed hope the company would go even further to promote technology sharing. Charles Duan, a patent expert at think tank R Street Institute, said he would like to see Medtronic follow the example of tech firms like IBM and Microsoft, which have contributed not just blueprints, but brainpower, to open-source initiatives.

“What would be more significant in my mind is if Medtronic makes available not just its existing designs but also its engineering team, to contribute to the many ongoing open-source ventilator projects,” said Duan.

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