A Commons Approach to EU Knowledge Policy

A Commons Approach to EU Knowledge Policy by Sophie Bloemen & David Hammerstein (2015; The Commons Network & Heinrich Böll Foundation) argues that the commons perspective:

  • “provides an intellectual framework for discourse taking into account social and ecological sustainability considerations as well as innovation.”
  • “can help us develop policies that would ensure broad access to goods that are of fundamental benefit to our societies and people’s lives, such as medicines, educational resources and climate technologies”
  • “can help us create and invest in institutions that foster collaborative knowledge creation as well as flourishing open knowledge initiatives.”

An apt summary:

The crucial point is that the information economy has the potential to democratize access to knowledge and its production. The goal is clear: create a structural environment that enables society to fully reap the benefits of knowledge sharing and collaborative production.

Well worth a read (about 28 pages of text) for further explanation of commons, knowledge commons, and application to health, green technologies, science, culture, and infrastructure.

Assorted notes on the text:

It is not surprising that Thomas Piketty, in his research on sources of income inequality over the course of 250 years, identified the spreading and sharing of knowledge as the main factor in reducing inequality and stimulating market activity.

I’ve commented on this in another post.

Emphasis added:

The proliferating ease of access to knowledge and the sharing of it pose a serious challenge to industries whose entrenched business models rely upon strong intellectual property rights (IPRs). The film, music, book and information industries are staunchly trying to fend off competition from new rivals who are exploiting collaborative strategies on networked platforms. The incumbents invoke the sanctity of IPRs, which were originally designed to provide incentives for the production of creative works, medicines, inventions and other knowledge resources. But the over-extension of especially copyright and patent protection is now proving harmful, and stifling innovation.

So although originally intended to provide incentives for creativity and innovation, copyright protection has become increasingly divorced from the reality of social practice, becoming a protectionist tool for dominant industries and a powerful legal deterrent to innovation.

I’m always disappointed to see the beneficent origins myth repeated, particularly when the authors realize the “sanctity” of IPRs is a problem. As Karl Fogel puts in The Surprising History of Copyright and The Promise of a Post-Copyright World, “Copyright is an outgrowth of the privatization of government censorship”. Both copyright and patents have been protectionist tools for centuries.

There has been no corresponding development of the rights of users even though there is a long history of “limitations” and “exceptions” to copyright law to authorize sharing and reuse, which has always been an important part of economic activity. By one respectable estimate, commons-oriented peer production, as expressed by industry sectors that rely upon open-source and “fair use” content, contribute to one-sixth of US GDP.

This estimate used the same bogus methodology of a copyright industry report claiming responsibility for a slightly smaller humongous chunk of the economy. I also think it’s a stretch to class any activity that relies on any copyright exception as commons-oriented (and/or peer) production. It’d be great to have respectable macro measures of commons-oriented production and of production that relies on knowledge commons in some way. I suppose exploitation of bogus estimates is inevitable in any case.

Many vested interests in copyright industries would rather not see any change and will do anything to ensure that the scope of copyright exceptions and flexibilities remain limited. However, it is important that the EU consider proposed legislation that would expand exceptions and limitations to include text and data mining; access to cultural materials for persons with disabilities; non-commercial sharing; user generated content; e-book lending and conservation by librarians. There is also a proposal to create a single digital market which could favorably impact the cross border flow of cultural works.

This (and the following paragraph) is probably the closest the text comes to using stock digital policy and copyright reform language. These proposals would each constitute an improvement, but are not particularly about favoring commons-oriented production, which I believe is necessary in order to sustainably change the discourse. So long as the dominant knowledge products are proprietary, exceptions and limitations are second hand goods and precarious.

Various proposals that do more directly favor commons-oriented production are mentioned. I’m pleased to see a positive agenda for multilateral treaties:

Instead of using multilateral treaties solely to promote market exchange of private knowledge goods and the enclosure of knowledge, they could be designed to invest in R&D and promote knowledge sharing among countries, producing enormous social benefits for people through expanding the global knowledge commons.

The specific idea mentioned earlier in the text is a Proposal for a WTO Agreement on the Supply of Public goods.

Why the EU needs Knowledge Commons is a roundtable to be held June 1 at the EU Parliament hosted by MEP Isabella Adinolfi:

In late 2015 the Commons Network published the paper: The EU and the Commons: A Commons Approach to European Knowledge Policy. It outlines the compelling logic, benefits and ethics of a commons approach to knowledge, with an emphasis on how that could improve policy in certain areas such as health, the environment, science and culture, and the Internet.

We would now like to engage in a conversation with experts working in the various fields discussed, during an expert meeting in the European Parliament. This conversation will allow us to assess the usefulness and applicability of the commons perspective in policy making on knowledge, and how to concretely move forward in protecting and managing common goods.