Opening up Knowledge

I know you probably didn't notice, but I posted very little on this blog last week - nothing, in fact. This was not down to me going “meh” for a few days, but rather because I was over-eager in accepting offers to talk at conferences...


I know you probably didn't notice, but I posted very little on this blog last week – nothing, in fact. This was not down to me going "meh" for a few days, but rather because I was over-eager in accepting offers to talk at conferences that were almost back to back, with the result that I had little time for much else during that period.

One of the conferences was FSCONS 2010 - the Free Society and Nordic Summit. Despite its rather vague name, this was actually a meeting of a decent proportion of the free software world in the Scandinavian, Finnish and Icelandic worlds, with a goodly dollop of free content people thrown in for good measure.

As you might expect, the programme concentrated mostly on deeply hackerish things, but there were also tracks looking at some of the broader issues. My talk formed part of that, and as you will be able to see from its slides, embedded below, this explored the issue of sharing knowledge as widely as possible in order to set in motion a positive feedback loop whereby expanded creativity and knowledge generation would drive yet more of the same. Of necessity, I also explored the barriers to this happening – chiefly patent and copyright laws.

Of course, I'm hardly the only person worried about the effects of locking down knowledge in this way. In fact, there is an entire Access to Knowledge movement that focusses on precisely this problem, and by a happy coincidence a splendid 646-page volume capturing its range and history has just been published, with a free download of the digital edition [.pdf]:

The end of the twentieth century saw an explosive intrusion of intellectual property law into everyday life. Expansive copyright laws have been used to attack new forms of sharing and remixing facilitated by the Internet. International laws extending the patent rights of pharmaceutical companies have threatened the lives of millions of people around the world living with HIV/AIDS. For decades, governments have tightened the grip of intellectual property law at the bidding of information industries. Recently, a multitude of groups around the world have emerged to challenge this wave of enclosure with a new counterpolitics of "access to knowledge" or "A2K." They include software programmers who take to the streets to attack software patents, AIDS activists who fight for generic medicines in poor countries, subsistence farmers who defend their right to food security and seeds, and college students who have created a new "free culture" movement to defend the digital commons. In this volume, Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski have created the first anthology of the A2K movement, mapping this emerging field of activism as a series of historical moments, strategies, and concepts. Intellectual property law has become not only a site of new forms of transnational activism, but also a locus for profound new debates and struggles over politics, economics, and freedom. This collection vividly brings these debates into view and makes the terms of intellectual property law legible in their political implications around the world.

I've only skimmed through it, but it looks really excellent, and is well-worth downloading if you're at all interested in any of the areas it touches on (er, that's everyone, actually.)

And if that isn't enough, here's another title in this area, "Access to knowledge for consumers: Reports of campaigns and research 2008-2010", also with a freely-available ebook edition [.pdf], which looks at the problems of copyright from the point of view of consumers around the globe:

The biggest barriers that consumers face in accessing copyright works are those created by copyright law. Even so, consumers around the world will choose original copyright works over pirated copies, provided that they are available at an affordable price.

These are amongst the findings from a global survey of consumers conducted by Consumers International (CI), conducted in 13 languages and covering 15,000 consumers across 24 countries. The survey was designed to determine what obstacles consumers faced in gaining access to educational and cultural materials and software.

I find it really doubly heartening that there is an increasing awareness of the seriousness of this problem of locking down knowledge with copyright and patents, and that important texts like these are downloadable as a matter of course. In a sense, they provide a foretaste of an eminently-achievable, but sadly still-distant world in which all knowledge is freely available to everyone in this from.

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