Wed 5 Jul 2006
One aspect of the international access to knowledge movement that strikes me as particularly appealing is that many people that work in this movement are open to critique and different ideas about what should constitute a “digital commons”. This was made very clear at the iCommons summit in Rio de Janeiro.
In some ways, one would expect the access to knowledge community to want to shy away from rights issues surrounding traditional knowledge and indigenous cultural heritage. Typically, many in the access to knowledge community are committed to protecting the public domain from exploitative commercial interests and other pressures that threaten the public domain with intellectual property “maximalism”. They see the public domain as space essential for supporting creativity, innovation, and free expression.
Enter traditional knowledge. Because of the way our law shapes the public domain, most “traditional knowledge” legally falls into the public domain, and is therefore (typically) open for anyone and everyone to use and exploit as they see fit. This definition of the public domain and its boundaries strikes many as unfair, especially to some people in indigenous societies. International regulations defining the public domain often don’t map well with local and indigenous rules about how knowledge is communicated. Also, not everyone benefits from the public domain equally (see a fascinating discussion by Chander and Sunder). The issue of “biopiracy” exemplifies this point, where public domain indigenous knowledge is used to find new pharmacologically significant compounds, often resulting in very valuable and patented (privatized) intellectual property.
It may seem counterintuitive that members of the access to knowledge community would want to look at the public domain with a critical eye. However, many people in the access to knowledge movement are also deeply interested in privacy and choice. The Electronic Frontier Foundation exemplifies these concerns. This organization fights against commercial and government interests to manipulate copyright and other intellectual property laws in ways that encroach on free expression. They are also very active in fighting for privacy protections and exposing sometimes unwanted commercial and law-enforcement breaches of privacy and trust.
In many ways the “commons” is envisioned as a context to re-imagine communication, knowledge sharing, science, and the public sphere and how they relate to new, empowering technologies and forms of social organization. This re-imagination explores the protection of privacy, the importance of consent and participation, and the notion that communication is embedded in social realities. These are many issues centrally important to making the commons empowering to members of native communities. iCommons works towards these ends internationally, so I think it is very appropriate for iCommons to explore how the digital commons intersects local and indigenous systems of knowledge sharing and communication. My home organization, the Alexandria Archive Institute, is partnering with iCommons to help move this forward. Our goal is to bring stakeholder communities together to shape ethical, licensing, and other policy recommendations for sharing indigenous knowledge and heritage in the global commons. Please contact us if you are interested in participating!