Monday, 5 May 2008

Public/private and other binary opposites in knowledge ownership: notes on McSherry

From notes on McSherry, Corynne (2001) Who owns academic work? Harvard University Press

McSherry frequently points out that private property is dependent on the existence of a commons – a public opposite against which private space can exist. This is important – it is not just a commons, but also a growing dichotomy between public space and private space that is significant in the development of property and intellectual property ownership.

It is also linked with the development of the author as hero and individual as liberal subject.

McSherry describes universities, as they emerge in he modern period (different to their medieval form, though inheriting some characteristics of course) use their distinction as public (from private and commercial) to emphasise their disinterested-scientific approach: this lack of private interest and academic freedom (freedom from state interference as well as from commercial interest) is what gives the modern university its authority and legitimacy.

Where McSherry takes a step slightly too far, in my view, is the irony of what this sense of public space achieves – for McSherry argues that in carving out public space, universities also therefore also carve out the opposite – private space. Often, in cultural development, one type of event does also confirm its opposite, but this need not imply causality or, intentionality – even an ironic intentionality. So, while universities assert and sustain the myth of disinterested and impartial pursuit of knowledge for its own sake in order to sustain a moral superiority that gives academic work its authority, this does not mean that this was even necessarily a primary cause of the development of private ownership of knowledge. Indeed, temporality might suggest the reverse to be the case, in that the emerging modern universities were asserting impartiality in contrast to the increasing patent-wars characteristic of inventors and universities’ real competition, scientific societies. But she is certainly right in pointing out both as establishing sets of dichotomous relations (public/private especially, but also monopoly/freedom, pure/applied etc) that are sustained throughout time and inform current discourse and debate about intellectual property and copyright.

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