On the Commodification of Human Discovery

Not so long ago, the language of “intellectual property” (IP) was the only serious way of talking about creative works and inventions.  Copyright and patents provided the default framework for explaining how someone’s bright idea grew into a marketable product, and how that in turn contributed to economic growth and human progress. It was a neat, tidy, reassuring story.  It had an irresistible simplicity – and the endorsement of the ultimate authority, government.

And then…. the pluriversal realities of life came storming the citadel gates!  Over the past fifteen or twenty years, the monoculture narrative of IP has been attacked by indigenous cultures, seed activists, healthcare experts, advocates for the poor, the academy, and especially users of digital technologies.  It has become increasingly clear that the standard IP story, whatever its merits on a smaller scale, in competitive industries, is mostly a self-serving, protectionist weapon in the hands of Hollywood, record labels, book publishers, Big Pharma and other multinational IP industries. 

We can thank the authors of a new anthology for helping to explain how the standard IP narrative is profoundly flawed, and how an array of challengers are showing how knowledge-creation so often emerges through social commons.

Free Knowledge:  Confronting the Commodification of Human Discovery, edited by Patricia W. Elliott and Daryl H. Hepting, provides a refreshing survey of the many realms in which corporations are enclosing shared knowledge -- and a sampling of commons that are democratizing the production and control of knowledge. (The book is published by University of Regina Press, and is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.)

It’s an apt moment for this anthology, about fifteen years after the explosion of open source software, Creative Commons licenses and new genres of online collaboration like wikis, blogs and social networking. The world has changed immensely in this short period, and yet there haven't been many broad book-length appraisals of the IP scene for a while. So why not pause and reflect more deeply on the many “other ways” of understanding knowledge? 

Free Knowledge explores the social dynamics of indigenous cultures in maintaining agroecological knowledge and artistic design….the role of farmers in maintaining the biodiversity and robustness of seeds….the role of open access scholarly journals in liberating academic knowledge….and the ways in which freely shareable knowledge is important to our ecosystems, in helping us develop a post-carbon economy.

The essays in the volume take on some of the ritual catechisms of the IP bar, free-market economics and western modernity by reminding us that all creativity and knowledge are ultimately based in social life.  Their free circulation is critical to creating value. Once knowledge is objectified and hoarded as a market asset, it starts to degrade, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

As Keith Aoki, an early legal commenator on plant genetics, wrote:  “The irony is that germplasm’s value stemmed precisely from its non-commodification.  Plant genetic diversity has been an invaluable resource to humans in preserving and developing a reliable food supply, and farmers could openly access germplasm for thousands of years in local and decentralized fashion.” 

The commodification of seeds through patents – and the patenting of living organisms from bacteria to genetically engineered mammals – amounts to an arrogant imposition of scarcity economics on natural abundance. IP regimes are no assurance of access, social equity or ecological stewardship. IP in the hands of industry is mostly about proprietary control and private gain. 

For too long, the larger implications of the marketization of knowledge have been ignored.  But now that we’ve seen the harm caused by the patenting of “breast cancer susceptibility genes” and life-saving drugs, it’s time to develop more humane alternatives to antiquated IP laws.

Free Knowledge not only reviews the many unpleasant impacts of over-reaching, ethically challenged IP laws, it explains their deeply flawed epistemology for conceptualizing knowledge.  No, the “lone genius” is not solely responsible for new creative works; a legacy of culture and science is a critical factor as well.  Valuable knowledge is often created by entire communities over generations, or through networks of collaborators -- consider free software communities, open design networks and indigenous societies.  Why can’t IP law take these realities into account?

The imposition of intellectual property norms on us, often through violent government coercion and trade treaties, inflicts a great deal of harm. It needlessly withholds life-saving drugs from those who can’t afford them. It marginalizes and degrades the cultures that have been the historic stewards of biodiversity. It changes how people relate to the land and each other.  It locks in an exploitative, extractive relationship between humans and ecosystems. 

Free Knowledge is a welcome survey of such alarming impacts of IP law. For a new generation that missed an earlier generation of progressive IP tracts, the book is also a valuable introduction to some salutary alternatives.