The Future of Digital Commons

author: Nancy Kranich, The Free Expression Policy Project
author: Ann Wolpert, The MIT Libraries, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Steven Pinker, Department of Psychology, Harvard University
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: September 2005,   views: 1722
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Nancy Kranich says the debate boils down to this: “Is information a public good or a commodity?” The more profit to be made, the higher the tension. Kranich envisions an “information society of the 21st century,” where the ruling metaphor is the commons: information is neither public nor private but something shared. Intellectual assets are not given away but managed “to sustain communities of interest,” and to foster free expression, creativity, innovation and democracy.

Ideas, unlike popsicles, do not disappear once they are consumed, Ann Wolpert notes. And the resources of the academic world are intended to be used repeatedly -- exchanged and enhanced. Wolpert finds particularly threatening the notion of extending copyright law to the work of academics. Ideas should not “be stuffed in the same box as Mickey Mouse,” she says. The internet has fundamentally changed the flow of information, and while it has encouraged a greater degree of “social sharing,” it is now threatened by market forces, which insist on controlling and realizing profit from ideas. Asserts Wolpert, “Neither the academy nor society can tolerate tight control over movement of information. For knowledge to advance, production and distribution systems can and should occur outside the tightly controlled, capital intensive publishing system.”

Steven Pinker admits that “as both a consumer and producer of information,” he has not resolved the conflicting demands of distributing his research freely, and making a living from it. “There is the question of how many … books would I write if I didn’t get a check in the mail from the publisher every once in while.” He warns against designing and promoting an information commons that relies exclusively on generosity, openness and inclusiveness -- human nature being what it is. However, Pinker finds hope in such models as Apple’s iTunes, with its micropayments to download music, and Wikipedia—the online, participatory encyclopedia—where people engage in uncompensated activity for the prestige of making “accurate and useful entries” in a shared online resource.

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