David Bollier on the Academic Commons

Excerpted from a longer lecture:

David Bollier:

“In my remarks today I want to explain how networking technologies are changing the economics of creating and sharing knowledge — and how this change has enormous potential to empower academic disciplines and institutions. While there are all sorts of new initiatives transforming teaching and learning, I will focus on open access publishing, institutional repositories, open courseware, and the broader Open Educational Resources movement.

I think it’s time for Amherst College and the Five Colleges to think more expansively about how they might participate in, and even lead, some of these important transformations.

As a newcomer to Amherst College (at least as a faculty member), I won’t pretend to know the institutional history and habits, faculty and library politics, technological capacities, and — let’s be frank — the sheer inertia — that may complicate any attempts to move forward into the digital frontier. But I do know enough about the larger trends in “open education” (as it’s often called) to suggest that they will transform higher education. They already are. Our stance shouldn’t be one of reluctant accommodation to the new realities, but rather spirited leadership in making the most of them.

* * *

I had an epiphany about this topic when I learned that USC gives all incoming freshmen a “copyright compliance” letter. The letter outlines situations that likely constitute copyright infringement, and it warns of “serious financial and legal consequences” for any infringement. It even invokes the fearsome specter of the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America and their take-no-prisoners enforcement policies.

Shockingly, USC states that its purpose is “to promote and foster the creation and lawful use of intellectual property.” That was news to me. I thought academia had more elevated, larger purposes!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in copyright law and in the obligation of colleges and universities to respect the law. But the USC statement struck me as an unseemly category mistake, if not a retreat from academia’s central purpose. Academia is about the liberal sharing of knowledge with other scholars, scientists and the public. Sharing is a necessary precondition for learning and research.

Disturbingly, the USC letter to students made no mention of a student’s fair use rights under copyright law and therefore their lawful ability to copy and share information under certain circumstances. Instead, the University declared its eagerness to serve as copyright enforcement police for the entertainment industry — a regrettable case of “cognitive capture,” one might say.

The USC letter got me to thinking — Why aren’t all students in our country sent a letter from their college or university that reads:

“As a member of an academic community, you have an affirmative duty to share your work with your peers and as widely as possible. That is a major responsibility of belonging to an academic commons. By making your work freely available, it acknowledges your debt to prior generations of scholars. It also improves contemporary academic research by subjecting it to the widest, most rigorous scrutiny. And will make it easier for future scholars to develop their own discoveries and innovations, and so contribute to a more bountiful future.”

If we stand on the shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton famously declared, why should academia so willingly embrace the closed, proprietary norms of the entertainment industry? Academic knowledge should be regarded as the inalienable resource of a commons.

Why, indeed, should academia even use the term “intellectual property”? The term was barely used thirty years ago, even by law scholars and attorneys. Copyright industries deliberately popularized the term as a way to strengthen their claims of absolute ownership. It was also a way to demonize unauthorized uses of copyrighted works that are entirely legal, as “piracy.” That point bears repeating: Many unauthorized uses of copyrighted works are entirely legal!

The “peculiar power” of an idea, Thomas Jefferson once wrote as the nation’s patent commissioner, is “that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.”

This, in fact, is the great virtue of academia — its ability to generate and freely share knowledge for the betterment of everyone, without anyone being worse off. Terras irradiant, one might say.

Academia is a special class of commons often called a “gift economy.” People make “contributions” to the field — through research, lectures, collegiality, etc. — and those contributions are shared by the community with no expectation of direct personal reward beyond recognition and respect.

This is what makes an academic commons so productive. As sociologist George Simmel has written, gratitude to a community “establishes the bonds of interaction for the reciprocity of service and return service, even where they are not guaranteed by external coercion.” Sharing, reciprocity and “gift-exchange” are a powerful alternative way of generating value — one that is quite different from the marketplace and its strict quid pro quo relationships based on cash and legal contracts.

In a book called The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property — which has become something of a cult classic — essayist Lewis Hyde explained the centrality of gift-giving to creativity and learning. I am thrilled that Lewis — who has since become a friend — has a terrific new book, coming out in August, on the cultural commons. It’s called Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. In it, he recounts the long history of copyright owners trying to enclose the commons of information and culture.

Hyde decries the power of market culture to dominate and overwhelm spheres of life that ought to be governed by their own ethics and norms. Paraphrasing philosopher Michael Walzer, Hyde writes: “It is in the nature of tyranny for one realm of life to desire power outside its own sphere, and over the whole world even.” He also cites William Blake: “One Law for the Lion & the Ox is Oppression.”

This sums up the problem now facing academia. It exists in a market culture, but its ethics and “value proposition” are quite different from those of the market, and must remain so. Its mission is not to develop an inventory of marketable intellectual property. It is the steward of a vast knowledge commons. It therefore must be vigilant in protecting and managing this commons.

* * *

I wanted to give this brief introduction to the commons because I think it helps us understand how the conflicts over the control of knowledge in academia echo the titanic clashes now roiling the film, music, publishing, journalism and broadcasting industries, among many others.

Much of the tumult that we are experiencing can be traced to what I call The Great Value Shift. In the networked environment, we are being forced to recognize that markets — and hierarchical, centralized institutions such as the corporation — no longer have a monopoly on the ability to generate value. Self-organized communities can frequently do things faster, more creatively and more efficiently than conventional markets.

The commons is beginning to out-compete — or out-cooperate — the market. There is now, in fact, a robust Commons Sector. We can see this in the rise of the Linux computer operating system vs. Microsoft; the rise of Wikipedia as a challenger to Encyclopedia Brittanica; the triumph of Craigslist over newspaper classified ads; the popularity of serious blogs as trusted alternatives to conventional journalism; among countless other examples.

“What we are seeing now,” writes Professor Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School in his book The Wealth of Networks, “is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” Benkler’s preferred term is “commons-based peer production,” by which he means a system that is collaborative and nonproprietary, and based on “sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.”

Sounds a lot like an academic discipline or college or university to me!

Given the natural capacities of the Internet and networking technologies, you can begin to imagine how they might be able to super-charge academia’s propensities to share and collaborate. (It wasn’t an accident that the Internet’s very protocols emerged from within academia, and not from the marketplace.)

In the online world, we are increasingly seeing that the price system of the market is too crude an instrument for animating human talent and communicating what has value. Economists generally don’t appreciate that conventional markets tend to have lots of hidden costs — capital equipment, bureaucracies, legal contracts, talent-recruitment, advertising, brand management, and countless other dreary things.

Economists can’t imagine the viability of the commons, a place where people wish to volunteer their time building free software programs, editing entries on Wikipedia, sharing their photos for free on Flickr, and participating in collaborative projects that proofread books, classify the craters of Mars for NASA, and aggregate their sightings of birds and butterflies.

These projects are among the phenomena that constitute the rise of the commons. The subversive story line that is emerging is the commons as a new principle of bottom-up generativity.

Which brings us to copyright law.

Conventional industries, including publishing, don’t like being out-flanked. And so to protect their obsolete business models, they have run to Washington to get all sorts of new laws to expand the scope and terms of copyright law, and to stiffen the penalties for infringement, and indeed, to criminalize basic creative freedoms and cultural practices.

This is a lengthy story unto itself, but let me just name a few of the more egregious aspects of the copyright wars.

After Congress had expanded copyright terms eleven times between 1960 and 1998, the Disney Company prevailed upon Congress to give it another go, and expand the terms of copyright law by twenty years for already existing works. It was a pure power grab by copyright industries to keep tens of thousands of cultural works — including Robert Frost’s poetry and, most significantly, Mickey Mouse — from entering the public domain. (As a result of that law, this speech would normally be locked up under copyright for the rest of my lifetime plus 70 years — say, the year 2100 — because that’s supposedly the monopoly incentive that I need in order to produce it!)

Then, of course, there is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has essentially wiped out the public’s fair use rights in digital media and inhibited the reverse-engineering of software.

Tech companies frequently use one-sided, highly restrictive Web “click through” contracts and software “shrink-wrap” licenses to limit how we may use works. And entertainment industries are trying to make Internet service providers and universities serve as copyright police for them. They also want to impose a “three strikes” system so that you permanently lose your Internet service for copyright violations.

This unprecedented cultural lock-down is disrupting the careful balance that was historically struck between authors (which is to say, publishers) and public needs.

It’s important to remember that copyright as a body of law is intended — under Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution — “to promote the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts.” The point is not to give authors or publishers broad monopoly rights in perpetuity. The point is to induce them to produce and sell new works, and in so doing, to expand human knowledge and culture.

In the digital environment, however, copyright law, as now formulated and enforced, often inhibits this goal. This has obvious consequences for the ability of the academy to carry out its core mission.”

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