The Commons and EU Knowledge Policies

One of the great advantages of a commons analysis is its ability to deconstruct the prevailing myths of “intellectual property” as a wholly private “product” – and then to reconstruct it as knowledge and culture that lives and breathes only in a social context, among real people.  This opens up a new conversation about if and how property rights in knowledge should be granted in the first place.  It also renders any ownership claims about knowledge under copyrights and patents far more complicated -- and requires a fair consideration of how commons might actually be more productive substitutes or complements to traditional intellectual property rights.

After all, it is taxpayers who subsidize much of the R&D that goes into most new drugs, which are then claimed as proprietary and sold at exorbitant prices.  Musicians don’t create their songs out of thin air, but in a cultural context that first allows them to freely use inherited music and words from the public domain -- which future musicians must also have access to. Science can only advance by being able to build on the findings of earlier generations.  And so on.

The great virtue of a new report recently released by the Berlin-based Commons Network is its application of a commons lens to a wide range of European policies dealing with health, the environment, science, culture, and the Internet.  “The EU and the Commons:  A Commons Approach to European Knowledge Policy,” by Sophie Bloemen and David Hammerstein, takes on the EU’s rigid and highly traditional policy defense of intellectual property rights.  Bloemen and Hammerstein are Coordinators of the Berlin-based Commons Network, which published the report along with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.  (I played a role in its editing.)  The 39-page report can be downloaded here -- and an Executive Summary can be read here

“The EU and the Commons” describes how treating many types of knowledge as commons could not only promote greater access to knowledge and social justice, it could help European economies become more competitive. If EU policymakers could begin to recognize the generative capacities of knowledge commons, drug prices could be reduced and climate-friendly “green technologies” could be shared with other countries. “Net neutrality” could assure that startups with new ideas would not be stifled by giant companies, but could emerge. And scientific journals, instead of being locked behind paywalls and high subscription fees, could be made accessible to anyone.

Bloemen and Hammerstein write that:

many of the economic and legal structures that govern knowledge and its modes of production – not to mention cultural mindsets – are exclusionary. They presume certain modes of corporate organization, market structures, government investment policies, intellectual property rights and social welfare metrics that are increasingly obsolete and socially undesirable. The European Union therefore faces an urgent challenge: How to manage knowledge in a way that is socially and ecologically sustainable? How can it candidly acknowledge epochal shifts in technology, commerce and social practice by devising policies appropriate to the current age?

EU policies generally focus on the narrow benefits of IRP-based innovation for individual companies and rely on archaic social wellbeing models and outdated models of human motivation. The EU has failed to explore the considerable public benefits that could be had through robust, open ecosystems of network-based collaboration. For example, the EU has paid little serious attention to the enormous innovative capacities of free, libre and open source software (FLOSS), digital peer production resulting in for example Wikipedia, open design and manufacturing, social networking platforms, and countless other network-based modes of knowledge creation, design and production.

Here’s a useful chart that summarizes key principles of the commons, policy designs, and outcomes that could be pursued through a knowledge commons agenda.




The report concludes with an agenda that the EU (or any government) could adopt to promote knowledge commons.  It includes such ideas as non-exclusive licensing of research so that biomedical innovations could have greater impact and more benefit for taxpayers; new support for knowledge commons through such things as patent pools, data sharing, the sharing of green technologies, and biomedical prizes that would make discoveries more widely available.  Muiltilateral trade treaties could be designed to promote investment in R&D and knowledge sharing among countries, producing enormous social benefits for people through expanding the global knowledge commons.  Net neutrality policies for the Internet could have similar catalytic benefits. 

Will the EU stand in the way of the “collaborative economy” that is emerging, giving protectionist privileges to the big, politically connected digital corporations – or will it stand up for the great benefits that can be generated through open platforms, collaborative projects and knowledge sharing?  It’s great that this new report is stimulating this long-overdue debate.

For a broader overview of how the commons is going mainstream in Europe – most notably, via the new commons Intergroup in the European Parliament -- here’s an insightful article by Dan Hancox that recently appeared in Al Jazeera English.