Egin Kongoli is an IP Innovation Clinic Fellow and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. This article was written as a requirement for Prof. Pina D’Agostino’s IP Intensive program.
When I was first assigned a utility provider as my placement for the Intellectual Property Law and Technology Intensive, I thought, “What does providing electricity have to do with intellectual property?” As I quickly learned, businesses that haven’t traditionally dealt with IP rights are facing a rising tide of related challenges as they seek to capitalize on new opportunities. Intellectual property directly supports Alectra Utility Corporation’s evolution from a distributor of electricity to a springboard for greater opportunities for their customers. While Alectra’s traditional role as a service provider still makes up most of its business, the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act provides new incentives to support innovative research and development. My internship at Alectra was spent on, among other things, the ongoing development of an intellectual property strategy to capture more value from the utility’s emerging collaborative business, along with consideration of its institutional business.
Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 requires a significant transformation of Ontario’s energy system. As a utility provider serving over a million Ontarians, Alectra is poised at the forefront of this project. Through the Green Energy & Technology Centre (GRE&T Centre), Alectra cultivates innovation by identifying, evaluating, and accelerating emerging clean-energy solutions. The work is cutting-edge, like 2021’s GridExchange Pilot, a transactive, blockchain-backed energy platform and marketplace. Through GridExchange, customers with energy assets like solar panels, battery storage, or electric vehicles can receive compensation and rewards for managing their energy use, such as deferring the charge of their EV to off-peak hours or sharing energy from their solar panels. From municipalities to start-ups, many are eager to access utility data so that they might develop other innovative solutions. Proper strategy, governance, processes, policies and contracts are needed to ensure any IP creation resulting from the collaboration and any real upside potential can be shared with Alectra.
IP strategy determines a standard for how rights-based issues will be handled in the collaborative environment. Canadian universities have paved the way in this regard. Like Alectra, these institutions aim to serve the public interest through the fruits of intellectual inquiry by enabling and encouraging research and development. University IP policies vary, but they all grapple with similar legal issues such as disclosure, use, ownership, commercialization, and revenue sharing. As third-party members working with Alectra and the GRE&T Centre receive data alongside meaningful learning and experience, using personal information by third parties will require careful consideration of not just legal obligations but also Alectra’s reputation. Current privacy legislation dictates that corporations must obtain valid consent from the individual to collect, use or disclose their personal information. At the same time, the federal government’s newly proposed Bill C-27, the Consumer Privacy Protection Act, weaves a web of exceptions to regulated practices that obfuscates oversight. For example, the CPPA excludes “anonymized data” from its purview, regardless of the ongoing debate on whether data can ever be de-identified without a remaining risk of re-identification. However, the proposed legislation permits the de-identification of data and the use of this material without the requisite knowledge or consent of the customer if the disclosure is made for “a socially beneficial purpose,” including the “protection of the environment.” By way of example, if Alectra or another utility discloses data to develop clean-energy infrastructure or energy-saving services, would it be excluded as a socially beneficial purpose? If a business anonymizes and aggregates its data sets, does this mean such disclosures are excluded entirely from regulatory oversight? Personal information must not be collected or used to influence an individual’s behaviour or decisions, but what if such a purpose is an alleged “socially beneficial” one?
My time at Alectra was illuminating. The work was not only related to intellectual property law but was also challenging and required endless inquiry to understand the nuanced interplay of laws and a business’s interests. From privacy to protecting against misappropriation, data practices demand multiple layers of legal and operational consideration. Whether through an NDA or an employment contract, a business’s dealings must reflect its IP strategy. Collaborative agreements must delineate contributions made by the company and benefits shared back. As Canada’s IP laws lack the clarity needed to mitigate copyright risks for data compilations, contractual measures must be taken to protect the data, but cannot be so strict as to dissuade collaboration. These challenges, and others unnamed here, offer exciting opportunities for lawyers working in the utility space as intellectual property law continues to fuel innovation.