Is Hell Freezing Over? Bill Gates Embraces the Knowledge Commons

The only story more newsworthy than “man bites dog” has got to be “Bill Gates champions open sharing and collaboration.” Yes, the high priest of proprietary software — whose company has ruthlessly used its copyrights and patents to stifle competition and innovation — is now recognizing the virtues of the knowledge commons…for AIDS research, at least.

Yesterday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would require that any researcher who accepts its grant monies for HIV/AIDS research will have to agree to share their scientific findings. The Gate Foundation was apparently frustrated that two decades of secrecy and competition among AIDS researchers have impeded efforts to come up with an AIDS vaccine. Scientists often decline to share their research because they are trying to obtain patents, withhold data until it is published, or simply protect their institutional turf.

But that’s not the best way to develop an AIDS vaccine, according to Nick Hellmann, the interim director of HIV projects at the Gates Foundation. The best research strategy is one that fosters an open, sharing environment. Says Hellmann: “There have to be better networks and collaborations [among HIV/AIDS researchers]. So we require all grantees to collaborate across a spectrum of grants.”

One researcher quoted in the WSJ account (July 20) said that enforced data sharing “increases the pace of discovery enormously rather than waiting for the process of writing formal journal articles, waiting for them to be published and [confirmed] by other labs.” Sharing lets rivals build on each other’s successes and avoid duplicative research and unproductive strategies.

Hm… Sounds exactly like the paradigm that has made free and open source software so innovative and successful.

In a bit of synchronicity, a parallel bit of news surfaced on the same day pointing to the perils of excessive intellectual property rights. A Santa Monica-based consumer group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is contesting three sweeping patents on stem cells claimed by a group called the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

The problem? WARF claims broad ownership rights in some of the most basic knowledge about embryonic stem cells. It insists that anyone wishing to conduct research must have permission and perhaps make payment. Many scientists claim that this is preventing stem cell research from moving forward. As one critic put it, it’s like claiming to own food because you know how to cook. Scientists are reluctant to make a ruckus, however, lest WARF retaliate against them or their institution. (More on this story via the LA Times account of July 19.)

Bill Gates has apparently recognized the dangers of just such scenarios in AIDS research. But does his new initiative at the Gates Foundation suggest that he has abandoned his absolutist vision of intellectual property? It’s unclear. According to the WSJ, “Foundation officials said this week researchers would still be free to commercialize their discoveries, but they must develop access plans for people in the developing world. The foundation declined to make its attorney available to address these concerns.”

One is tempted to snort at the hypocrisy that Gates has not applied the commons analysis to the development of Windows and other Microsoft products, whose proprietary code continues to thwart innovation and competition around the world. But let us be gracious. There will be time enough to learn how Gates squares the IP positions of his foundation and those of Microsoft. Indeed, given the company’s recent agreement to include a new feature in Word that makes it easy to use Creative Commons licenses in text documents, change may be afoot.

In the meantime, in the interest of finding an AIDS vaccine, Bill Gates has shown real leadership. His foundation is willing to acknowledge a truth that most other IP ideologues staunchly refuse to admit — that an open knowledge commons can be profoundly generative and innovative, and should therefore be actively promoted. Promising research results are now likely to arrive much sooner than otherwise.