Author: Molly Land

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A human rights perspective on freedom to access knowledge

I’m excited to be a part of this symposium discussing Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski’s important new collection, Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property. The collection provides us with a foundation for considering the past, present, and future of A2K—its accomplishments, tensions, and future directions. I was particularly struck by the way in which the book’s conceptual framing of A2K issues and its discussion of advocacy strategies informed one another. This synergy was most evident for me in one of the questions Kapczynski poses in the opening chapter: “What is the nature of the freedom that A2K demands?” This question resonates for me as a human rights advocate in two important ways.

First, this question asks whether A2K should be primarily concerned with freedom from intellectual property restrictions, or something more. As Dileepa Witharana and Harini Amarasuriya note in discussing A2K strategies the Sri Lankan context, intellectual property is only one of the many barriers that restrict access to knowledge, and in many places, it may not even be one of the most significant. Coming to this discussion from human rights activism, I’ve felt that the focus on intellectual property policy—while unequivocally an important and critical issue—has nonetheless seemed to limit the transformative potential of “access to knowledge” as a lens through which to view a variety of problems. Consultations with health practitioners around the world conducted by the organization Health Information for All by 2015, for example, indicate that one of the most important problems for their members practicing in low-resource settings is not copyright restrictions on articles in medical journals, but rather the absence of reliable and good quality health reference and learning materials. Original research articles typically discuss treatments and procedures not relevant to the problems that practitioners in low-resource settings encounter in their daily work. These treatments also often require high-technology settings for their application and are written in languages and styles that are often inaccessible.

Access to knowledge could be a tremendously powerful lens for addressing this problem, focusing us on the importance of health information in ensuring good health and challenging us to think about how to get appropriate, adequate, and reliable information both to health professionals and to the individual family members who most often provide first-line medical care. But where is the limit? Should A2K also be concerned about training paraprofessional health workers to provide health information to rural communities? With ensuring that health workers are paid well enough that they are able to remain in the communities where they are most needed? (See the work of the Global Health Workforce Alliance on efforts to address the global health worker crisis.) Without the organizing focus of intellectual property rules, is there enough content to give direction to the movement? Or does it run the risk of being stretched too thin?

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