24 May 2008

Sharing the knowledge

Now that universities have become corporations and higher education is just another sector of our globally competitive economy, why should we co-operate with each other and share our knowledge. Shouldn't we rather be hoarding it and selling it for the highest price?

This is a particularly disastrous strategy for knowledge management at a time of crisis when knowledge about how to manage our affairs sustainably needs to be spread as rapidly as possible. A recent conference of researchers exploring the Transition Towns in the UK came up with an answer to this problem: the knowledge co-operative.

Many well-motivated researchers laugh in the face of intellectual property law and proudly proclaim their willingness to give away their knowledge. This is missing the point in two ways. First, if you have signed a standard university contract your knowledge doesn't belong to you anyway. Even though all our best ideas arise in the bath or on the bus everything you have ever thought belongs to your employer.

More seriously, if we don't try to maintain control over this knowledge, then others probably will. Just like the neem tree, vital insights into how sustainable communities actually work could be controlled by corporations and sold back to us - just as our research papers are. Nothing could be more iniquitous than the fact that we review each other's work for free, edit our own work, format and typeset it - but then cannot gain access to each other's work without subscribing to journals whose profits go to publishing corporations.

The sustainability knowledge co-operative will be a membership organisation which academics and research centres can join. They will undertake to share knowledge freely with others in the co-operative who will not make a profit from it. Their own contributions can be protected by creative commons licences so that if somebody is likely to make a profit from their ingenuity then they can negotiate a share. Some knowledge will be so important that - like Volvo's three-point seatbelt or pencillin - it will be given to the world for free, but it will not be available for others to copyright.

Knowledge is a common resource, and knowledge created by publicly funded universities should belong to the public. However, in a free market, we cannot leave this knowledge floating freely. We need to constrain it legally in a way that facilitates its sharing and empowers those who create it rather than the corporate knowledge factories which employ them.

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