A2K Conference at Yale: Some Observations

I am attending the Yale Information Society Project's second Access to Knowledge (A2K) conference. There are about 150 people here. The story is that the leaders of Yale ISP are self-consciously positioning A2K as a social movement and simultaneously putting forward A2K as an overarching master frame for the entire range of communication and information policy issues. (For a broad historical background on communication-information as an integrated policy domain and the convergence of multiple issue networks, including intellectual propert-related advocacy, around the problems of digital media, see our study Reinventing Media Activism, published in 2004.)

Certainly A2K has as strong a claim as anything to having both a global perspective and a powerful, theoretically grounded way of integrating the issues. Yale law professor Jack Balkin spoke of A2K as going beyond the first amendment (too national, and only involing negative liberty) and Article 19 to include building the infrastructure of information (schools, libraries, govt info policy), promoting the widest possible spread and diffusion of knowledge & information from diverse sources; fair distribution, putting the tools of understanding in peoples' hands and heads; lower cost of telecommunication; preventing concentration of ownership; promoting cheap, widely available production tools.

One identifiable tension involves the relationship between the paradigm of “the commons” and the role of market forces. There is a tendency here to refer to “the” commons as a goal and to view open, nonproprietary and collaborative organizational forms as a kind of totalizing substitute for the liberal market economy. The rhetoric is the mirror image of the market fundamentalists' intransigent defense of “the” market. The social movement framing contributes to this polarity. Social movements are about motivating people and creating a common identity, often by counterposing “good” and “bad” things, and there is a tendency to elevate “the commons” as “the good” and “the market” as bad. The problem is that there is no such thing as “the” commons (or “the” market). There are commons or markets for one good or another, and the nature of any given market changes depending on the legal and institutional arrangements. And the important thing is that markets and commons are always coexisting and closely interrelated and interdependent. As one of the most fascinating speakers here explained, in local music scenes in Brazil, the absence of copyright leads to a robust market for live performances and self-produced CDs. Likewise, the absence of copyright protection for free software leads to markets for software services, and net neutrality leads to more competitive and robust markets for internet content and applications.

So it is not about “the commons” vs. “the market,” unless A2K is to degenerate into a bad replay of the 20th century fight between communism and capitalism. This tension between the proprietary and the open also showed up on a plenary panel called “Mobilization of Industry,” Intel's Brad Biddle flatly rejected the language of “mobilization” and “social movement” and talked instead of “strategic alignment of interests.” Corporations, he acknowledged bluntly, are about profits for shareholders. He cited the WIPO Broadcasting Treaty as an example of business-public interest group alignment and noted that civil society groups were ahead of industry in appreciating its problems. Most of these panelists, including Pamela Samuelson, the Berkeley law professor whose early resistance to copyright maximalism inspired much of the current A2K movement, seemed to envisage a creative mix of open and proprietary models.

One comment

  1. Anonymous

    The music industry still wins a lot of money each year even though there are music pirates everywhere in the world. Imagine how much the industry could win if nobody would steal music and buy it instead.