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May 14, 2010

creating informed communities (part 5)

This is the fifth of five strategies proposed to achieve the goals of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. See Monday's post for an overview.

Strategy 5: Organize People to Defend the Knowledge Commons

The Knight report does a great job of showing that healthy communities need information. Information is a "public good," in the economist's sense, because excluding people from its benefits is difficult and expensive once the knowledge has been produced. Generating and protecting public goods raises special challenges for which we need effective, grassroots advocacy organizations.

The main challenges facing public goods are, first, that individuals may not be motivated to produce things that benefit everyone (when instead they can “free-ride” on others’ labor), and second, that individuals, firms, and governments may be tempted to privatize public goods for their own advantage. Today, many knowledge artifacts that once would have been rivalrous can be digitized, posted online, and thereby turned into public goods. On the other hand, knowledge can be privatized and monetized, as when intellectual property is over-protected or when university-based research is influenced by corporate funding. It is also possible for knowledge to be under-produced, if there are insufficient incentives to develop it and give it away. For example, too little research is conducted on diseases that affect the poorest people in the world.

Civic knowledge--knowledge of relevance to public or community issues--does not come into existence automatically, nor is it safe from anti-social behavior. The documents in a town archive, the reporting that filled a traditional town newspaper, and the artifacts in a local museum all took money and training to produce, to catalog, and to conserve. Once produced, these goods are fragile. They can literally decay or burn, and they are subject to manipulation or inappropriate privatization.

For example, access to state court decisions in the United States is provided exclusively by private firms, mainly the West Publishing Company and LEXIS/NEXIS. The public’s interest in affordable and convenient access to public law would be undermined if these firms over-charged or provided poor quality.

In 1998, with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Congress extended most existing copyrights in the United States for 95 years. Congress thus granted monopoly ownership to works that had been created as long ago as 1903--requiring anyone who wanted to use these works to locate the copyright holder, seek permission, and pay whatever fee is demanded--and asserted a right to extend copyrights as frequently and for as long as it liked. In his dissenting opinion to the court decision that upheld this law, Justice Breyer wrote, “It threatens to interfere with efforts to preserve our Nation’s historical and cultural heritage and efforts to use that heritage, say, to educate our Nation’s children” (537 U.S. 26, 2003, 26). If Justice Breyer was correct, the Sonny Bono Act was an example of knowledge of civic value being turned from a public good into a private commodity by state power at the behest of private interests.

Given such threats, we need associations that play the following roles:

May 14, 2010 1:54 PM | category: none



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