Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Collectivity and currency: draft conclusion

[this is following from the last post, The Death of the Author]

Of course the institution did not assume all the functions of the author in the production of individual texts, such a claim would be silly. The analogy is imperfect, to be sure: its value is that it reflects the marginalisation of the community of scholars. The wrongness of institutional claims over intellectual property was not in its contrast to the rights of the individual author or originator, but in its failure to acknowledge collectivity. In fact, the appropriation of rights by the university paralleled, even enhanced, the individuality and authority of authorship. In claiming the singularity of the institution as the rightful owner of knowledge and intellectual property, it confined the plurality, the organic richness of the community of scholars to its narrow and increasingly impoverished being.

The university did own knowledge. The community of scholars were the university and their knowledge, collectively, enriched the places where they gathered. The community of scholars was like a living, breathing library, wealthy (as the cliché describes it) with knowledge. This explains why the universities had thought it would be so easy to claim intellectual property from staff and students: the knowledge they had was the university’s all along. But in the community-based gift economy that knowledge, while tradeable as a gift, could not be converted to currency.

Currency was the wealth universities were definite that they needed. Collectively they had constructed what Elizabeth Garnsey called a “consensual vision”, a fantasy in which teaching and research, reconstructed as a trade in intellectual property, would solve their pressing financial problems.  Government policy not only supported their belief it also structured a system that required their compliance in it. Government had been advised that there was a global $600 Billion market for knowledge. Knowledge was what universities did, the substance that they ‘traded’ in. While acknowledging that universities, by their nature, did a lot of ‘pure’ research, approximately half of it was useful – strategic and applied – and therefore, they thought, could surely be added to this vast global knowledge market for a profit. If universities could be encouraged to be more entrepreneurial and to consider their knowledge to be a type of intellectual property, logic deemed that universities could be potentially funded from the knowledge they produced. This would help the government by relieving the public of some of its responsibility for funding higher education.

It would also help the universities, so their leaders were persuaded, since they were grossly underfunded. Moreover, since the early 1980s they had been looking for more diverse sources of income in an attempt to regain autonomy from the ever-encroaching Commonwealth. Indeed, the Commonwealth had been moving, inch by barely observable inch, to undermine academic freedom in the universities. But the transfer of knowledge towards short-term, achievable national and market priorities was still not as severe an attack on academic freedom as that which the universities unwittingly launched themselves. In the obligation to report and protect commercial potential, universities posed a direct threat to the right to publish and the priorities of research. The new structure of ownership – appropriation of intellectual property rather than ownership of knowledge by virtue of membership – structured the possibility for institutions to suppress research.

As it turned out, the potential for wealth had been overstated. A $600 Billion intellectual property market was not suddenly likely to be dominated by the types of (even strategic and applied) research outcomes that universities were good at. The idea that anything close to 50% of university research outcomes had commercial potential shows a clear misunderstanding of the market for knowledge – commercialisation specialists now suggest that only a tiny percentage (0.03%) of the new ideas generated within a university will ever successfully find their way to market. 

In this chapter I have not made any moral claim for where income derived from university intellectual property should go. I not only consider that to not be my job, but I am also genuinely agnostic about the problem. That it is a problem – as result, actually, of the changes in policy between 1986 and 1996 – I have no doubt. But there is nothing satisfactory in saying that, in the interests of academic freedom all intellectual property rights should be given to individual academics. On the other hand, that ownership by institutions did nothing good for university knowledge is clear. It is the emptiness, the poverty of the singularity of the ownership of knowledge that is the problem, whether institution or individual author. The collective knowledge of scholars could not be converted to currency, but it was what had made them rich. Rather than provide the universities with a new and reliable income stream, intellectual property robbed the universities of their wealth. 

[as always, blurb about footnotes here, email me if you want them blah blah blah. Also a note: I still have a couple of days before this chapter will be properly finished and this conclusion is likely to change. Any suggestions, now is the time!]

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