[This piece will appear as a chapter in the book From Intellectual Property Rights to Access to Knowledge by Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds.) to be published by Zone Books in 2009.]
Dionysus … decided to reward Midas for his hospitality and granted him one wish. Midas wished that everything he touched be turned to gold. Dionysus warned him about the dangers of such a wish, but Midas was too distracted with the prospect of being surrounded by gold to listen. Dionysus gave him the gift. Initially, King Midas was thrilled with his new gift and turned everything he could to gold, including his beloved roses. His attitude changed, however, when he was unable to eat or drink since his food and wine were also changed to unappetizing gold. He even accidentally killed his daughter when he touched her, and this truly made him realize the depth of his mistake. (Anna Baldwin, Midas, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/midas.html)
The best and the worst scenarios in access to knowledge can be seen today in two opposite trends: 1) in the genetic field, islands of proprietary genetic material are growing amidst a sea of free/open access biodiversity; and 2) in the information field, islands of free/open access initiatives are growing amidst a sea of proprietary resources.
The privatization of genes
In agriculture and genomics, a race to patent and thereby privately own genes continues to rage unabated. According to a 2005 study, one-fifth of the human genome already been patented. (Stefan Lovgren, “One-Fifth of Human Genes Have Been Patented”, National Geographic News, October 13, 2005. See http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/pf/22064243.html) Patents are exclusionary devices and are therefore a form of private monopoly, in effect turning genes into private property. Genes are a natural monopoly. As the director of Duke University’s Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan says, “You can find dozens of ways to heat a room besides the Franklin stove, but there’s only one gene to make human growth hormone.”(Lovgren, see above)
The privatization of genes is, of course, a prelude to commodification. Commodified goods (or bads, for that matter, such as carbon credits representing a right to pollute) then become subject to market mechanisms and forces. If there is carbon trading, can DNA trading be far behind? If we can have commodity futures, why can’t we have derivatives like carbon futures or DNA futures?
Commodification is an all-consuming trend in economics. Commodification respects none and targets all: land, culture, knowledge, information, human beings, water, air, atmosphere, nature, life, genes, relationships – truly anything and everything. Driven by corporate profit-seeking and gain maximization, commodification knows no end, no limits.
Like King Midas, today’s corporations and other gain maximizers turn everything they touch into commodities and, subsequently, into money. Wherever they look, whatever they look at, they see a dollar sign. If we followed their lead or allowed them to continue, our entire world, and everything in it as well as outside it, would sooner or later be for sale or for rent. Then we would end up like the cynic who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
The free/open source trend
There is, fortunately, an opposite trend.
Ideas about information freedom and sharing have percolated for sometime. They are called by different names, representing subtle differences in attitudes, perspectives and approaches towards access to information and knowledge. The earliest were ideas about public domain and the commons. But – as everything turned digital, accelerating the commodification of information – these early ideas were, apparently, insufficiently developed to deal with the rapidly changing nature of information. For instance, if software were simply released to the public domain, commercial interests were better positioned to take full advantage and incorporate it into their products. Also, object code (in contrast to source code) in the public domain remained largely inaccessible for modification. Thus, while many utilities and simple programs were distributed as public domain or “freeware”, no major software projects were. New approaches were also tried which relied on a license based on existing intellectual property concepts. These included the “shareware” license, the GNU Public License, the BSD License and their variations. Out of the latter two emerged truly huge software projects such as the Linux kernel, the GNU systems and utilities package, the BSD operating system, software application suites such as OpenOffice, and similar software.
The idea of free/open sharing caught on and extended to other fields. The Creative Commons license extended this idea to other literary and artistic works. The Wikipedia represented another huge effort to accumulate and share human knowledge in a completely non-proprietary way.
This new social movement might be called the free/open source information movement . It is now being embraced in other fields and promises to become the guiding principle for access to knowledge. In the academic community, free/open online journals are now emerging in the spirit of this movement, challenging the entrenched publishers of printed academic journals.
This movement may, in the future, merge with other “free” and “open” movements. In the educational field, a “free” schools movement – “free as in freedom” – has been simmering for some time, following the pioneering works of educators Maria Montessori in Italy, A.S. Neill of Summerhill fame in England, and John Holt in the U.S. Among the ideas that contributed to the intellectual ferment and the eventual peaceful uprising of the East Europeans was the “open” society concept given impetus by George Soros. The free exchange and sharing of seeds is a freedom that farmers will defend with their lives. If a convergence happens, a truly historic shift in mindset can occur, promising a freer and more open world.
We have to divide bread to share it, but sharing knowledge multiplies it. Because knowledge is literally food for the mind, the movement to ensure free/open access to information and knowledge will turn into reality the parable in this Biblical story:
In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, he summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a great distance.” His disciples answered him, “Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy them here in this deserted place?” Still he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” “Seven,” they replied. He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute, and they distributed them to the crowd. They also had a few fish. He said the blessing over them and ordered them distributed also. They ate and were satisfied. They picked up the fragments left over – seven baskets. There were about four thousand people. (New Testament, Mark 8:1-9; see also 6:34-44)
Join the commodification race and we will all acquire the golden touch. Adopt the free/open sharing perspective and the knowledge of some can miraculously feed all. The golden touch or the miracle of the loaves? Whichever road we take will determine whether we will enter a neo-feudal period ruled by information and genetic rentiers as they increasingly privatize human knowledge and genetic material, or a new flowering of human culture thanks to free exchange of ideas, information and knowledge.