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Category: Symposium (Access to Knowledge)

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Diverse Challenges to A2K Activism: A Southern Perspective

When we participated the virtual round table more than a year and a half ago A2K was not a theme rallying those who worked on issues connected to access to knowledge in Sri Lanka. We, however, identified

The Foss movement

The Seeds movement and

The Anti-globalisation movement,

as active movements that had the potential for providing leadership to an A2K movement in Sri Lanka along with us, the Access to Knowledge Study Group at the Open University of Sri Lanka and to take the initiative to introduce and popularize the concept “access to knowledge”. Though we were in favour of defining A2K in the broadest possible sense to incorporate A2K issues that have nothing to do with IPR (still the main barrier to A2K within the context of Sri Lanka and the context of a majority of developing countries) for instance, questioning the marginalisation of informal knowledge in the face of formal knowledge and power at play in knowledge production, we confined ourselves to discuss A2K against the restrictions posed by IPR when we identified the above 3 movements as the potential partners of the A2K movement in Sri Lanka.

It is important to note very briefly what has happened during this last one and half years because that discussion itself would shed more light on A2K issues on the ground, and issues that would influence the emergence of an A2K movement. The seeds movement and anti-globalisation movements (to the extent that one can identify them as movements as we discussed at the virtual round table) have not been particularly active; this is not because the IPR related A2K issues have been resolved but because a diversion of funding that supported such movements to other countries after the conclusion of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers and also to other thematic areas such as climate change, postwar reconstruction, debt , social and cultural rights, etc. A few of the prominent Colombo-based NGOs that were active in seeds and anti-globalisation activism and there NGO/CBO network Island wide are struggling for survival. In contrast to that we see the expansion of FOSS initiatives in universities, the public sector and the private sector. The stricter implementation of the IPR law is the reason behind this. Software piracy is represented as a criminal activity and regular raids are conducted on software and VCD/DVD vendors and private institutions. A special unit has now being established at the Criminal Investigation Department to conduct these raids.

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Information commons and global democratic capabilities

Most chapters in the Access to Knowledge in the age of intellectual property book have been initially drafted several years ago.  As we are holding from today a 3-days on-line symposium to celebrate the publication of the book, the ideas covered in the book prove to be not just resilient, but at the heart of a difficult but exciting democratic renaissance.

As many, I joined the Access to Knowledge (A2K) movement from a specific perspective. For me, it was advocacy for commons-based innovation and culture, and struggles against legal and policy mechanisms that threaten their potential. Underlying this involvement was a wider perspective: the idea that information and communication technology (ICT) are at the root of new human capabilities, and that the a proper legal, policy and cultural environment will decide how well we seize this opportunity. As I write these lines, the link between ICT, freedom of expression, democratic empowerment and human development is hot news. And with these news come new questions and challenges.

When my book Cause commune: l’information entre bien commun et propriété was published, I did not invest much energy to get it translated in English, as the aim of the book was to reformulate American knowledge commons-thinking for European, emerging and developing country readers. But one day, I received an email from a Tunisian translator, Abdelouadoud El Omrani, who offered to produce a voluntary translation of the book in Arabic. It ended being published as a paper book by the Qatari National Centre for Culture, Heritage and the Arts, disseminated on the Internet under a Creative Commons license. Let’s be frank, I am not sure that many people read this book in Tunisia (where many likely readers read also French) or in Egypt. That’s partly because the distribution of books (and even ideas) is still very segmented in the Arabic world, and partly because potential readers had more urgent things to do. However, the publication brought me to visit a few Arabic-speaking countries, and to meet Internet users, knowledge sharing advocates, lawyers and writers from the Arab world. I witnessed their courage, their inventive use of poetry and fiction (when they explained it to me, as I don’t understand any Arabic), whether in face of authoritarian regimes for instance in Tunisia or Egypt or in face of the totalitarian imposition of religious prescriptions on individuals, for instance in Saudi Arabia1.

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A2K Symposium: How Fractal Inequality Challenges the Unity of A2K

The edited collection Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property is an extraordinary achievement. Many essays offer models of engaged scholarship. The book as a whole reminded me of what Ian Shapiro described as problem-driven (rather than method-driven) scholarship. Shapiro argues for the superiority of “problem-driven over method-driven approaches to the study of politics,” making “the case for starting with a problem in the world, next coming to grips with previous attempts that have been made to study it, and then defining the research task by reference to the value added.” He argues that “method-driven research leads to self-serving construction of problems, misuse of data in various ways, and related pathologies summed up in the old adage that if the only tool you have is a hammer everything around you starts to look like a nail.”

Problem-Driven Research

By contrast, problem-driven work tries to reason about a puzzle, injustice, or inequality, by drawing on the full range of methodological resources developed by social scientists. Krikorian and Kapczynski welcome the perspectives of health workers, activists, social critics, and academics. All the contributors think critically about access to knowledge, unshackled from disciplinary blinders that can lead to what C. Wright Mills calls “abstracted empiricism.”

The A2K paradigm addresses a very large issue: access to knowledge writ large. For A2K activists and academics, there are common problems besetting individuals in both the developed and developing world, who all find themselves hemmed in by patent, trademark, and copyright laws. As the introduction puts it,

In a hospital in South Korea, leukemia patients are expelled as untreatable because a multinational drug company refuses to lower the price of a life-saving drug. Thousands of miles away, a U.S. group called the Rational Response Squad is forced by the threat of a copyright lawsuit to take down a YouTube video criticizing the paranormalist Uri Geller. Could we—should we—see these two events, so seemingly remote from one another, as related? Yes—or such is the premise of a new political formation on the global stage, one that goes under the name of the “access to knowledge movement”—or more simply, A2K.

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The A2K Symposium: Introduction and Contributors

Many thanks to Frank and the Concurring Opinions crowd for hosting this symposium about access to knowledge and intellectual property.  I’m very much looking forward to the discussion, which begins tomorrow and will continue through Thursday.

We’ve lined up a great list of people, and asked them to react to ideas or themes in our new edited book, Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property (pdf and purchase here), or to comment on emerging issues or debates in the domain of access to knowledge. For those who are new to it, a brief introduction to “A2K,” as many of us have come to call it, may help. To cadge from the book’s preface,

A2K is an emerging mobilization that includes software programmers who took to the streets to defeat software patents in Europe, AIDS activists who forced multinational pharmaceutical companies to permit copies of their medicines to be sold in South Africa, and college students who have created a new “free culture” movement to “defend the digital commons”—to select just a few. A2K can also be seen as an emerging set of theoretical commitments that both respond to and reject the key justifications for “intellectual property” law and that seek to develop an alternative account of the operation and importance of information and knowledge, creativity and innovation in the contemporary world.

We’ve lined up a stellar group of contributors for the symposium. We’ve enlisted some of the sharpest thinkers and bloggers on the topic of the “commons,” including David Bollier, who blogs here; Michel Bauwens who blogs here; and Lewis Hyde, the well-known author of The Gift, and more recently, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership (purchase here).

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Symposium on Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property

I am honored to announce that Concurring Opinions will be hosting an online symposium on Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property this Tuesday to Thursday (Feb. 1 to Feb. 3, 2011). This book, edited by Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski, is available for free download here, and can also be purchased here. Krikorian and Kapczynski will be announcing the contributors on Monday; I’m introducing them today (and will post in the symposium). We look forward to comments from regular readers and the wider blogosphere.

Amy Kapczynski is Assistant Professor of Law at UC Berkeley Law School, and is visiting this year at Yale Law School. Her current research addresses the implications of the propertization of information in global perspective, and the relationship between law and social movements. Her most recent publications are Harmonization and its Discontents: A Case Study of TRIPS Implementation in India’s Pharmaceutical Sector, 97 Cal. L. Rev. 1571 (2009), and the co-edited volume Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property (Zone Press 2010).

Gaëlle Krikorian is a PhD candidate at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and a member of the Interdisciplinary Research Institute on Social Issues. Social Sciences, Politics and Health (IRIS) in Paris. She is currently an advisor on Access to Knowledge and Intellectual Property issue for the Greens at the European Parliament. Among her most recent publications are: The politics of patents: conditions of implementation of public health policy in Thailand, in S. Haunss and K. C. Shadlen (éd.), The Politics of Intellectual Property: Contestation over the Ownership, Use, and Control of Knowledge and Information (Edward Elgar, UK), 29-55 (2009); Dispositions ADPIC-plus introduites dans le cadre des négociations internationales, in G. Velasquez & C. M. Correa (éd.), Innovation pharmaceutique et santé publique (L’Harmattan, Paris), 131-143 (2010).