One of the great advantages of a commons analysis is its ability to deconstruct the prevailing myths of “intellectual property” as a wholly private “product” – and then to reconstruct it as knowledge and culture that lives and breathes only in a social context, among real people. This opens up a new conversation about if and how property rights in knowledge should be granted in the first place. It also renders any ownership claims about knowledge under copyrights and patents far more complicated -- and requires a fair consideration of how commons might actually be more productive substitutes or complements to traditional intellectual property rights.
After all, it is taxpayers who subsidize much of the R&D that goes into most new drugs, which are then claimed as proprietary and sold at exorbitant prices. Musicians don’t create their songs out of thin air, but in a cultural context that first allows them to freely use inherited music and words from the public domain -- which future musicians must also have access to. Science can only advance by being able to build on the findings of earlier generations. And so on.
The great virtue of a new report recently released by the Berlin-based Commons Network is its application of a commons lens to a wide range of European policies dealing with health, the environment, science, culture, and the Internet. “The EU and the Commons: A Commons Approach to European Knowledge Policy,” by Sophie Bloemen and David Hammerstein, takes on the EU’s rigid and highly traditional policy defense of intellectual property rights. Bloemen and Hammerstein are Coordinators of the Berlin-based Commons Network, which published the report along with the Heinrich Böll Foundation. (I played a role in its editing.) The 39-page report can be downloaded here -- and an Executive Summary can be read here.
“The EU and the Commons” describes how treating many types of knowledge as commons could not only promote greater access to knowledge and social justice, it could help European economies become more competitive. If EU policymakers could begin to recognize the generative capacities of knowledge commons, drug prices could be reduced and climate-friendly “green technologies” could be shared with other countries. “Net neutrality” could assure that startups with new ideas would not be stifled by giant companies, but could emerge. And scientific journals, instead of being locked behind paywalls and high subscription fees, could be made accessible to anyone.