Knowledge Commons: Science that can be Shared

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“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have one idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

–  George Bernard Shaw.

If ideas were viewed as property, as they often are, then could a multitude of allied ideas be understood as a common pool resource? The notion of ideas as a common pool resource is intricate but fathomable. An idea is a mental representation – an abstract, intangible and ethereal characterization of the product of mental activity – and whether legal protection of such a mental representation is possible is still somewhat unknown, though the legal protection of the expression of ideas is possible under intellectual property laws.

The concept of knowledge commons or a collection of intelligible ideas as a common pool resource is yielded to because of the cumulative nature that ideas possess. They are commodities as well as a constitutive force of society. Therefore the discovery of future knowledge and improvement thereupon is a common good and a treasure we owe to future generations.

What does ‘knowledge commons’ mean? To comprehend this, we need to know the roots of the word ‘commons’. Commons is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people. The word ‘commons’ in relation to property primarily refers to assets, resources, or things owned by nobody but available for use by all without restriction. Due to their peculiar characteristics, such assets are non-excludable and one person’s use does not diminish another’s access to them. Property of this nature is available for the benefit of humanity. However, Garrett Hardin’s famous and often-cited article, “The Tragedy of Commons” suggests that unreasonable and unbridled use of the global commons would deplete the resource in its entirety. Therefore, according to “ The Tragedy of the Commons”, the open-access nature of certain environmental resources makes them vulnerable to over-exploitation as due to non-excludability and non-rivalry, it is more often than not difficult to regulate the use of such property.

Now, the concept of knowledge commons emerged from the doppelganger of the tragedy of the commons which is known as “The Tragedy of the Anticommons”. It is the inverted mirror image of the tragedy of the commons, and while the commons dilemma deals with overuse of resources, the anticommons dilemma is one that speaks of privatization to an extent that there is underutilization.  Therefore, as Buchanan and Yoon put it, “Anticommons is a useful metaphor for understanding how and why potential economic value may disappear into the ‘black hole’ of resource under utilization, a wastage that may be quantitatively comparable to the over utilization wastage employed in the conventional commons logic.” Therefore, knowledge commons is an escape from immense privatization and under utilization of resources.

The first instance of knowledge commons is the Open Source Movement in Copyright started by Richard Stallman. The open source movement believes that source code in software should be freely accessible and available. In open source projects, source code is distributed with the object code so that it can be studied, improved and modified by other programmers. In recent times, open source in biotechnology is also coming up to support this concept of knowledge commons.

In my opinion, the most promising innovations that science has come up with are the several lawful ways to share and exchange knowledge. In an age of extreme information-feudalism where ideas can be bought and sold, stolen and bartered, it is of great importance to have a global system of ideas where there can be exchange and improvement of knowledge. Such a system not only leads the society to progress, it also fulfills a personal need of creation and curiosity.

Deya Bhattacharya

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