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Category: Symposium (Access to Knowledge)


A2K Symposium: Contribution by Yann Moulier Boutang

By Yann Moulier Boutang

Dear all,

I have not yet read extensively the huge and referential book edited by Gaëlle and Amy. No doubt this e-meeting and e-discussion will help every contributor to master it in a more rapid and proper way. Reading a book collectively provide richer insights inasmuch that each of us is overcrowded by many books and starts reading plenty of them without time to absorb them thoroughly.  I find the rule of this exercise (each contributor choose another contribution in the book) a good incentive.

I have chosen the contribution of Yochaï Benkler whose general book The Wealth of Networks I retain a seminal book of the new political economy I am trying to promote with my students. Benkler using such a title, wanted to ring a bell I guess : the bell of the famous The Wealth of Nations of our good old Adam Smith. For its importance and the decisive break through it provide I would preferred to compare it to Ricardo’s Principles and Ronald Coase first farewell to the classic and neo-classic economics. For economists generally so narrow minded when dealing with other disciplines, I find astonishing that a jurist has brought in, all at once, so many contents and bricks for the new building up of economics and in completely different meaning than that of Posner in law economics, since the later has consolidated the traditional axioms of mean stream economic instead of threatening the very basis of both neo-classic and heterodox schools like Benkler did.

Hence I was quite curious of his contribution in the field of political science.

In his “The idea of Access to Knowledge and the Information Commons : Long-Term Trends and Basic Elements” (pp. 217-235 of the Book) Benkler tries to embrace the unity and consistency of the A2K movement as a political movement, that mean something already rooted in institutional and historical political life (not an utopian idea about future politics).
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A2K Symposium (Post by Michel Bauwens): From A2K to Guaranteed Access to True Peer-Based Communication Infrastructures

By Michel Bauwens

A2K cannot just mean access to content, but also full capacities to share and build knowledge with one another, and recent events around Wikileaks and in Egypt have shown us how fragile the internet is to governmental and corporate disruption.

What have internet democracy activists been doing in the last few years, and what should they be doing next?

Here is a list of major undertakings, some well under way, some barely begun. All need to be done, are interdependent on each other, but need to be done ‘at the same time’, though there is a certain maturation effect which may need to take place to move from one phase or priority to another. Finding out these interdepencies and choosing amongst those priorities is a matter of debate, strategising, and practical experience.

* use the existing infrastructures for immaterial exchange for personal and social autonomy

We started by creating an infrastructure that allowed for peer to peer communication. Out of this striving came the internet and its end to end principle, web 2.0 and its possibilities for participation, and social media allowing for intense relational interaction, and tools such as wikis which allow for the collaborative construction of knowledge. Read More


Counter-Productive Laws

By “counter-productive”, I refer to laws which undermine, suppress or otherwise diminish the production and exchange of goods and services. Sometimes, such laws start off with good intentions. But when some powerful economic interests get disproportionate benefits from such laws, these get expanded, enhanced, or extended far beyond their originally-modest intentions. The “intellectual property” laws discussed in earlier blog entries as well as in several essays in the book Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property (Zone Books, 2010) are of this kind. Other counter-productive laws include those that restrict access by low-power community broadcast stations to the radio spectrum and laws that restrict the rights of farmers to commercially-distribute their seeds.

If the vested interests benefitting from them are powerful enough, these laws can become international in scope or get deeply entrenched in constitutional provisions, making it even more difficult to change them.

Developments such as Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Plus, the spread of plant variety protection, the introduction of software and life-form patents, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, and similar efforts indicate that such counter-productive laws continue to get expanded, enhanced and extended. The screws are getting tighter.

The book cited above includes my essay “Undermining Abundance: Counter-Productive Uses of Technology and Law in Nature, Agriculture and the Information Sector” (p.253), which explores further how law as well as technology can be used to undermine potential, incipient or actual abundance in goods and services.

Writing this essay has been life-changing for me. It led me to a deep study of artificial scarcity and the wellsprings of abundance. I saw how most of mainstream economics today sees only half the picture: it has made a very detailed study of scarcity, but has hardly touched on the concept of abundance. I found the subject so compelling that at age 56, after submitting the essay in 2008, I went to graduate school to study economics again. In school, I confirmed what I already knew from my readings: abundance seemed to have no place in mainstream economics, and scarcity remained a fundamental assumption.

Thus, the essay has grown into a thesis: that economics should be the study of scarcity and abundance.

Years from now, I hope, all schools of economics will teach the complete picture, that economies are shaped by the dynamics between scarcity and abundance and that economic development means moving from scarcity towards abundance for all.


The Age of Intellectual Property?

Are we in the Age of Intellectual Property?

It’s become a truism in IP scholarship to introduce a discussion by acknowledging the remarkable recent rise in popular, scholarly, and political interest in our field. Thus readers will recognize a familiar sentiment in the opening line of Amy Kapczynski and Gaëlle Krikorian’s new book:

A decade or two ago, the words “intellectual property” were rarely heard in polite company, much less in street demonstrations or on college campuses. Today, this once technical concept has become a conceptual battlefield.

Only recently, however, has it become possible to put this anecdotal consensus to empirical test.

In December 2010, Google launched ngrams, a simple tool for searching its vast repository of digitized books and charting the frequency of specific terms over time. (It controls for the fact that there are many more books being published today.)

If you haven’t already played around with this tool to explore your own topics of interest, you should. While you’re at it, take a stab at explaining why writing on the Supreme Court rose steadily until approximately 1935 and has dropped just as steadily ever since!

Back to our topic, though. What does this data reveal about the prominence of intellectual property in published discourse?

I generated two graphs, both charting the terms “intellectual property,” “copyright,” “patent,” and “trademark.” First, the longview:
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A2K symposium (Post by Pr Anil Gupta)

By Pr Anil Gupta

Some posers:

If the basic needs of the majority of people in the world remained unmet:  why people’s access to knowledge of other people, institutions and knowledge systems (in their language) is not at the heart of the debate?

Is it because people lack  imagination, ideas, innovations? Is the river of ideas dry?

is it because the institutions which can convert their ideas into enterprises – social or economic, individual or collective are missing?

what will just just access without supporting institutions providing assurances and ability (skills, technology) really then achieve?
What are the resources in which many economically poor people are potentially rich:
• Knowledge, creativity and innovation for survival;
• Ethics and values;
• Institutions (common property institutions, social arrangements for using natural or other resources);
• Kinship and social networks: the social capital;
• Cultural communication channels.

What are the resources they lack:
• Institutions (like, providing handholding support at their doorstep;
• Access to local or nearby labs and workshops to add value to their knowledge or fabricate tools for meeting their need;
• Access to local language multimedia tools / databases of traditional knowledge or grassroots innovations by other communities in the region or around the world (such as Honey Bee database,;
• Flexible access to natural resources governed by state or  large private owners;
• Access to micro venture capital and risk funds to support new product development
• Linkage with formal sector scientific labs for validating and valorising their knowledge of herbal healing and other technological claims;

Lack of low transaction costs system of IP protection without preventing people to people learning but ensuring benefit sharing with corporations: why should people disclose their knowledge at all??–a la technology commons (Sinha, 2009, Gupta, 2010)

Whose access: whose knowledge

Madhavi Sunder made an interesting point: local people are left behind just in the proportion that some others people gain advantage through modern ICTs,

But are not we too left behind in gaining access to their, the people’s knowledge, institutions, ethics, values and creativity?

In Which kinds of knowledge do some people are ahead and some behind?

a) database of green grassroots solutions developed poor peers (honey bee database)

b) opportunity for blending formal and informal knowledge

c) acces sto frugal empathetic heuristics: the ways in which grassroots innovators achieve solutions may also teach us new heuristics about solving problems and in the process, sometimes, advance the frontiers of science. One must, however, accept that no one system of knowledge can provide all solutions.
d) Blending of formal and informal science is necessary to produce sustainable outcomes.
In fact, such blending has taken place implicitly in lot of intuitive discoveries and explorations. Why is it then formal scientific applications make reference to them less often?

e) The trade off between accuracy, affordability, accessibility and local adaptability has to be made in technological portfolios by the households, particularly in disadvantaged regions all the time. Social sustainability, therefore, requires recognition of the challenges that emerge on the scientific frontiers.

f) Who will develop a windmill in 120 usd?

Whose knowledge is valuable for whom?
Whose access will make this solution accessible to whom where in world at what cost?

This is the question we have been trying to answer in Honey bee for last twenty years.

The local  knowledge base has tremendous opportunity for generating cross cultural and regional linkages.

Cross-cultural linkages among knowledge systems:

For instance, pastoralists in Mongolia used a home made lick out of onion leaves with wheat germ, sodium bicarbonate and dried milk for the animals. It was found that this lick was very rich in selenium. The deficiency of this element could cause the young calves to die prematurely apart from causing other problems. While discussing the idea of HB network with Akwasasne people in Canada, it was discovered that they were facing a problem in the livestock which was traced to the deficiency of selenium. This is what the potential of Honey Bee network is. A practice in Mongolia documented by a professor in Scotland, published in Honey Bee becomes available for use in Canada or Laddakh.


The economically poor –knowledge rich people lack a little space in the dreamland of modern knowledge managers
Why are so few knowledge/innovation bases available on the internet in local languages or even in English
Whose access we want to improve, whose transaction costs we want to reduce, at what cost and for whom.

Concept of technology commons:

People to people knowledge exchange free, unrestricted, unhindered.

People or communities to firms: not free, not without due reciprocity, not without PIC, benefit sharing contract.

What myths are we blowing:

Poor are not just consumers, they can also be providers of knowledge, innovations and ideas.

Poor are not at the bottom of all pyramids:  they may be at the bottom of economic pyramid, but are they at the bottom of ethical, innovation and knowledge pyramids.

Innovations are not made only in high tech institutions, these also evolve in the ‘laboratories of life’, at the grassroots level by individuals as well as communities.

Innovations are imperative for survival, these  are not as infrequent as we assume.

Traditional knowledge has not lost its relevance.  The functional elements can be valorised to generate solutions for contemporary problems.

What can we do together:  Honey Bee Network, member institutions and IIMA are willing to join hands with public and private institutions, community initiatives and individuals who want to make a difference without devaluing the local knowledge, innovations and institutions.
Creativity counts,
knowledge matters,
innovations transform,
incentives inspire (not just monetary, also non monetary, collective and not just individual)


A2K Symposium (Post by Ahmed Abdel Latif): The future of A2K: the risks of dilution and cooptation

By Ahmed Abdel Latif

The publication of Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property is timely to reflect on the future prospects of the A2K movement. In this regard, the first risk it faces, in my view, is ‘dilution’. A dilution which results mainly from the disparate agendas being pursued in an uncoordinated manner by the diverse communities and groups which make up the A2K movement, but also as a result of other factors such as reduced funding, and competing priorities. How can the diversity of the A2K movement, which is a great source of richness and cross-fertilization of ideas and practices, be maintained in the long term while advancing a cohesive agenda? With the ‘dilution’ comes also the risk of loosing ‘policy focus’ where A2K drifts to be confined to an academic abstract discussion.

The second risk is the one of ‘cooptation’. As the A2K movement becomes successful in advancing some of its proposals and models in international fora, such as WIPO, for instance, we witness a tendency in these fora to reproduce ‘A2K friendly’ language and engage in A2K related studies and projects. Does this mean that A2K has achieved its goals and that the change it called for has occurred? Is this the questioning of rules and approaches governing the ownership and dissemination of knowledge that the A2K desired?

Finally, I still find sometimes floating around an assumption that A2K has the same meaning in the North and in the global South, while it isn’t necessarily the case and we shouldn’t loose sight of this dimension. The recent events, in my home, country, during which internet access was ‘cut off’ for several days maybe a good illustration of this.


A2K, Practice, Nonknowledge

Congratulations to all involved on the publication of the A2K volume!  I think A2K is a provocative way of framing some contemporary debates around knowledge, information, community, property, intellectual or otherwise.  It feels like every week brings us some new shift which is being linked to A2K issues: Tunisia; Egypt; WikiLeaks to name just a few.  In many of these situations, what’s at stake is the way that knowledge is legally characterized as property: state property; private property etc.  And the ways in which our ability to reproduce and disseminate knowledge radically shifts our understanding of what an object or subject of knowledge is, bringing into being new publics and new kinds of archive.

For me, the point made at the end of Amy’s introduction, about the need to separate “knowledge” from “information” is a key one, in that if all knowledge is rendered as information and more specifically information stored and passed around in digital data networks, then knowledge has already been reified or turned into a commodity.  Perhaps I might even wonder if there was a more fundamental kind of access than “access to knowledge” that was at stake in contemporary struggles about intellectual property.  For example if communities and individuals are constituted by practices of copying, things like pleasure, affect, relation are all there, even “being”. It’s always possible to instrumentalize those things are forms of knowledge or “ethical know how” as Buddhist neurologist Francisco Varela termed it.  But it may be the case that something important gets lost if one overemphasizes knowledge at the expense of other forms of being in the world.

In my own work, I’ve emphasized the importance of practice as being important in itself, regardless of the “content”.  How do we defend particular practices of copying that may or may not be centered on knowledge production but which nonetheless are culturally significant? There’s an important body of work in critical theory, from Bataille and Blanchot through Agamben and Nancy on the importance of “nonknowledge” and “unworking” (désoeuvrement). These concepts can seem very abstract and removed from the concrete struggles of social activists, but I wonder to what degree they might be helpful in thinking and making spaces where openness and sharing prevail, spaces that can’t necessarily be defined in advance as public domain or commons  etc.

A2K Symposium: Owning the Stars

I heard Lawrence Liang give a terrific talk at the Open Video conference in New York last Fall. His contributions to the A2K volume are also thought-provoking. Here is the conclusion from one of them:

I end this piece with a small parable that many of us will have read while we were children. The story is from Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s tale The Little Prince. The Little Prince visits a number of planets and encounters a range of different characters. On the fourth planet, he meets a businessman who owns millions of stars, and the reason why he owns them is because he was the first one to think of owning the stars.

The Little Prince is perplexed, because he can’t seem to find a reason for owning the stars beyond the fact that they can be put in a bank to enable the businessman to buy more stars. The Little Prince tells the businessman that “I own a flower myself, which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I rake out every week. I even rake out the extinct one. You never know. So it’s of some use to my volcanoes, and it’s useful to my flower, that I own them. But you’re not useful to the stars.”

Liang’s parable in turn made me think of ownership as an obligation, not (just) an opportunity for exploitation.

A2K As a a Statement of Progressive Intellectual Property?

In a special issue of the Cornell Law Review, four noted professors of property law wrote a brief series of propositions they identified as “A Statement of Progressive Property.” I found the following propositions particularly compelling:
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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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The shift to IPR resistance in social movements

It takes a lot of time for social movements to understand the political role of Intellectual Property Regimes. For a long time, especially in France, where I leave, and where Droit d’Auteur is considered as a national treasure, the shift for diverses approach to « protect » authorship, inventorship, and others neighbouring rights in the cultural industry, to a one-size-fit-all « intellectual property » was unknown to social movements, and even to political parties. Just as a reminder, in 1998 the database law, which is clearly in opposition with the very nature of copyright, was passed with unanimity. No political fracture, not even discussion on this subject. It takes until 2005 for the french parliament to have a real debate on IPR… and to discover the very political nature of what was formely seen as « neutral protection for art, culture and innovation ».

We have to thanks the Access 2 Knowledge worldwide movement to be the very first actor for this change, and praise the diverses contributors, and the coordinators Gaelle Krikorian and Amy for the publication of Access to Knowledge in the age of intellectual property book, which document all the aspects of the new emerging opposition in this field.

As far as we follow international negociations, we can discover the very project that such different sectors as Hollywood, the Big Pharma and the Silicon industry wrote in the international agenda during the eighties : to grant a new commercial vision of their activities not only to extend their market, but also to be sure that sharing, which was the heart of culture, of medicine, and of the nascent software community, will be stopped.

IPR is not only a regime of « property », but is also a way to control the user. It’s a long time control of usage of what was once a « property ». And a longer one each time the public domain is eroded. The new networks, the methods of analysis such as in the biochemical industries, and other tools of « the control society » have the capacity to extends surveillance to the user. With the new technics and the new legal background, the ideological stance to see the world through the « intellectual property » scheme, as begin to enter the head of dominants all over the world, creating new battleground for the big players…

For a long time, the debate was in official salons, with soft speak and self-recognition… until the peasant movements (notably The Via Campesina) and the movement of ill-people, mostly people living with AIDS, enter the dance. They join the long time opposition of the Free Software movement, and met the democratic option of librarians all over the world. So they show the very complexity of the subject… and the new need for coordination to confront the ideological, commercial and practical domination and control of « rights owners » and their State’s servants.

That’s the very central role of the A2K movement : to show other social movements how important it is to maintain the free sharing of « intellectual » information, from user to user, from North to South, from voluntary sharing people (the « commoners » as David Bollier name them),… The copernician change in the way to think about IPR that it was to concentrate on « users rights », was the signal that most social movement understood. At the present time, the message of « the Commons » is the proud child of the A2K movement, and it is gaining importance, as the World Social Forum that is to be held in Dakar next week is showing.