Free Knowledge

11 December 2015

Free Knowledge: Confronting the Commodification of Human Discovery
Edited By Patricia W. Elliott & Daryl H. Hepting
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Allison Kydd
$27.95 ISBN 9780889773653

Free Knowledge is a collection of articles that offers some surprises to readers who might assume corporations are always the bad guys. After all, most readers have heard of corporations hoarding and overpricing pharmaceuticals, making them unavailable to the countries that need them most. Many readers might also be aware of dangerously close relationships between private corporations and universities and other public research facilities.

Some articles address these issues, but the overall discussion of a “knowledge commons” is much broader. Articles also consider seeds, especially those that are genetically engineered and patents that attempt to “own” that knowledge, the implications of copyright, the appropriation of culture and questions around free access as opposed to subscriptions, among other things. In fact, the book covers so many aspects of knowledge and its possession that it’s difficult to evaluate the collection as a whole.

Though the editors are professors, not all the authors represented here are academics. Some are graduate students, farmers, activists, ethicists or publishers. Perhaps that explains the breadth of the discussion. The editors, Elliott and Hepting, describe the collection as “look[ing] at the question of knowledge: how it is generated and shared, and to what purpose”. It is also part of the published record of a conference on “free knowledge.”

While it is commendable that the study is far reaching, its breadth also creates problems, such as the problem of addressing conflicting needs. For instance, one article acknowledges a need to protect traditional knowledge (TK) while another calls for all journals to be open access. As a writer, I was somewhat appalled by Heather Marshall’s blithe description of a “gift economy” where “neither authors nor peer reviewers are paid”.

Activist Lorenzo Barreno offers interesting insights into Mayan culture and certain traditions and ceremonies. Though he talks about how Spanish and Western culture has devalued Mayan traditions, he doesn’t mention cultural appropriation. Academic Gregory Younging, however, talks about the “colonization” of traditional knowledge and clearly opposes general distribution and use of such knowledge. In Younging’s words:

In effect, Indigenous knowledge has been colonized, along with many other Indigenous institutions and possessions . . . embraced by Western peoples as their own (without acknowledgement of the source), just as lands were taken in the colonization process based on terra nullius [land belonging to no one].

In a further article, Younging and Jane Anderson, a specialist in intellectual property law, Indigenous rights and comparative histories of colonialism and intercultural exchange, discuss Indigenous protocols and a new relationship with Western laws. Though this discussion seems productive, it is ironic that Morrison in her article entitled “Open Access to Scholarly Knowledge: The New Commons,” pleads for “a common pool of all of the knowledge of humankind from which all can draw freely and to which all qualified scholars are welcome to contribute”.

It seems there is much to discuss before we can arrive at a knowledge commons that is fair and acceptable to all.


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