Claire Polster: Free Knowledge

Claire Polster: Free Knowledge

The battle over the ownership of the intellectual property (IP) produced in Canada's universities is going to heat up, particularly if the recommendations of the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research are adopted by government.

Many academics and faculty associations are likely to argue that we, rather than our institutions, are the rightful owners of the knowledge we create. In this brief space, I want to argue strongly against this position. I propose that the academic community instead make the case that neither we nor the institutions in which we work are entitled to own the knowledge we produce, but that all knowledge produced in our universities rightfully belongs to the public. In other words, we should make the case that the university has no business in the intellectual property business in the first place.

I make this proposal for three main reasons. First, it is just. Academics are public servants not entrepreneurs. We do not fund our research work out of our own pockets, and so we cannot claim the products of our labour as our personal property. Further, because we do not have a legitimate claim to the knowledge we produce on university time, we are likely to lose the debate about rightful ownership of IP in the court of public opinion. Indeed, in taking the position that IP should be ours, we will help reinforce the view of academics as self-serving and unaccountable which is being promoted to advance agendas such as the introduction of performance indicators and the elimination of tenure. Perhaps more insidiously, we will also help reinforce the misconception that industry's interests are identical to the public interest. This is because one of the main justifications for vesting IP rights with the universities rather than academics is that the former are more likely to successfully transfer it to national industries, thereby producing "a benefit to Canada".

Debating that we rather than our institutions should hold title to the knowledge we produce should also be avoided because it diverts our attention from the very serious threats to the liberal university's future that stem from IP, regardless of who owns it. The university's involvement in IP is already eroding, and will progressively erode, its ability reproduce itself in two ways. On the one hand, it will prevent academics from drawing on and replenishing the commons of knowledge - that pool of freely available public knowledge which is the lifeblood of the liberal university. Already, many academics' ability to access and produce freely available knowledge is being inhibited as intellectual property increases the costs of research, restricts the availability of various resources needed to produce public knowledge, and alters university reward structures so that the professional benefits of public knowledge production are diminished. Sadly, in response, many academics are adopting individualistic strategies (such as forming research partnerships with corporations) which only exacerbate the problem, pressuring even more academics to engage in the production of private knowledge and depleting the stock of public knowledge further.

The second way in which its implication in IP compromises the university's future is by reducing its ability to serve the public interest - which is the main reason why it receives public support and is a necessary condition of its continuing to receive that support. Academics involved in the production of IP are less able and/or willing to share their research and knowledge with a variety of communities in a variety of fora.

[They may also be unable to protect the public from harm (as the Olivieri case revealed) and may actually damage the public interest either inadvertently or knowingly, such as when they grant exclusive licenses to inventions which inflate the price of consumer goods and/or retard scientific or economic development. More generally, as the identification and exploitation of IP become increasingly central to university operations, there are greater temptations and pressures to abandon the public interest in favour of particular interests. These have already resulted in various scandals (involving insider trading in public goods and the suppression of critical academic research, for example) whose number is likely to increase with time, thereby provoking greater public disaffection with, and perhaps its ultimate abandonment of, the university.]

Although the university's involvement in IP will probably not result in its physical destruction, it will very likely lead to its fundamental transformation. As opposed to an institution that produces a broad range of freely available knowledge that serves the general interest in a variety of ways, the university will increasingly resemble any other knowledge business that produces mostly private knowledge in the service of particular clients. This development should be of considerable personal concern to academics, as many of us will have no place in the new university, and many more of us will no longer be able to do the kinds of work that originally drew us into academia. It is also of serious social significance as it will spell the end of one of the few remaining institutions devoted to knowledge production and transmission in the public interest, which, for all its flaws, is still a precious and possibly irreplaceable resource.

[The loss of this institution would be tragic at any point in time. It is all the more so, however, when one considers the implications of what I refer to as "the global knowledge grab".]

[As Seth Shulman makes terrifyingly clear in Owning the Future (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), we are living in a time when the intellectual riches of the world, which were previously considered the common heritage of humanity, are being colonized, mainly by powerful transnational corporations. As you read this, property rights to seeds, genes, and life forms are being fought over and awarded to a relatively small number of individuals and companies, as are the rights to ideas, concepts, interpretations, sounds, smells, and even colors! The implications of this appropriation and privatization of our technological, biological, and cultural heritage are as staggering as they are distressing. Shulman does not exaggerate when he implies that it is now one of the most serious threats to our own, and to our planet's, well being, one about which we all need to become much more informed and mobilized.]

[In the midst of this, we in the university have a unique opportunity to act. Rather than becoming one more victim of the global knowledge grab, we can take a leadership role in resisting it. In opposing the university's involvement in the production of IP, we will not only be returning the knowledge we produce to its rightful owners and improving the liberal university's chances of survival: we will be defending the tremendously important principle, and the actual existence, of a commons of knowledge. In the long term, we might do even more. The university could well become the centre of an already growing movement devoted to reclaiming, preserving, and ultimately enlarging the global pool of public knowledge in the interest of existing generations and all those coming up behind us.]

In the context of the global knowledge grab, I can think of no higher service that academics can render to the public than defending the idea and reality of a vital commons of knowledge. And I can think of no sadder prospect than our passing up this opportunity as we compete with university administrations for the right to own the knowledge produced in the academy. As I write, I keep thinking of the story of Essau who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. I deeply hope that the academic community learns from this story and acts on its lessons, for it is far more than our individual futures that are at stake.

Claire Polster is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Studies at the University of Regina. Many of the ideas presented here are developed in greater detail in her article "The Future of the Liberal University in the Era of the Global Knowledge Grab" to be published in Higher Education.

The Forum on Privatization and the Public Domain, 31/05/05