Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Is all knowledge intellectual property?

Today I read seventeen university Intellectual Property policies, which was just about as interesting as it sounds, largely. Except I noticed something I had not expected. Universities do not all share the same idea of knowledge as property. There were three ideas about knowledge as property:

1. The majority of the 17 universities I looked at considered all knowledge produced in their university to be intellectual property. Added to this property, by various legal mechanisms, would be varying levels of protection. The policy, normally, was implemented as the means of protecting this. Thus, knowledge is intrinsically intellectual property, according to this view.

2. Some of the universities saw knowledge as not intrinsically property. That is, knowledge is just knowledge (or something) until it is legally protected, at which point it becomes intellectual property. Some were specific enough to state that knowledge became intellectual property once it was tradeable and therefore in need of protection.

3. The third way was held by just one of the university policies I read through today. It saw all knowledge produced in the university as knowledge “assets” – that therefore belonged to the university – but knowledge did not become intellectual property until it was protected for the purposes of trade.

These 17 universities were not chosen at random, but the reasoning of that selection is not as important here as the relationship between this interpretation of knowledge as property by the universities and this passage from a basic text on intellectual property in Australia:

“The principal danger … is falling into the trap of assuming that any identifiable ‘thing’ must belong to someone. In the present context this translates to the erroneous belief that all fruits of intellectual activity have some intrinsic claim to be treated as property. … [suggests other factors must be weighed to decide on the rights accorded, which answers the other extreme, that] proprietary analysis is fundamentally inappropriate in this area … this goes too far, for it depends on the extent of the rights granted, a point that is true whether or not those rights are described as proprietary”. (McKeogh et al, p. 19)

Whether all knowledge, or just the tradeable bits, is considered to be property is very important.

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