Access to Knowledge, academics, and IP

I spent this weekend attending the Access to Knowledge (A2K) conference (see wiki). A2K is a would-be social movement that ties together a number of existing intellectual property-related activism issues, ranging from free/libre open source software and copyleft, to copyright reform and fair use, to (abolishing) software patents, to patented crops and gene patents, to access to patented medicines in the developing world, to digital rights and privacy, to media regulation. I got to spend some time with Wikimedia board member and wiki developer Erik Möller, had a wonderful evening with a few friends, and met some interesting new people. And since I was in town for the weekend, I also got a chance to hear a wonderful talk by bad-ass historian of science Lorraine Daston on Enlightenment “observers” (naturalists, microscopists, and all-purpose obsessives) such as Charles Bonnet, who spent days on end (sleeping only occasionally and reluctantly) observing the every move of a single aphid, from birth to death, and on through several generations of parthenogenetic reproduction . Though their observations were considered a waste by their peers, Bonnet and other dedicated observers were consumed by their passion for observations (often sinking inherited fortunes into their projects); they never considered it work.

What, you ask, does A2K have to do with crazy Enlightenment patricians? After Daston’s talk, I was chatting with one of the authority figures in my department and let slip my own occasionally obsessive pastime. When I mentioned the Wikipedia history of biology article I had been working on (which became a Featured Article over the weekend–hooray!), I got a grumbling reply about peer reviewed publications and my C.V. This was the strongest disapproval this good-natured prof can project. He only perked up when I told him I had been invited to submit an opinion piece about Wikipedia and the history of science to the upcoming inaugural edition of Spontaneous Generations, a new open access history and philosophy of science journal. Now that there is an open access journal in the field, I said, I have somewhere to publish future work without feeling guilty. At this point I was reminded of what I already knew: it’s really tough to get humanists fired up about IP issues, even though these things ought to be high on their lists of social/political/cultural priorities (especially given the dreadful state of academic publishing).

The lawyers of the Yale Law School, on the other hand, are on the forefront of IP activism (hence hosting the A2K event). The conference was a mixed bag of interesting talks, old news, and random acts of scholarship. For the most part, the presenters from organizations I already liked (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Internet Archive, Electronic Frontier Foundation) or should have already liked (Free Press) had the most interesting things to say, though presentations from Microsoft, Google, and Intel were also worth mentioning .

Erik encouraged me to put together a talk proposal for Wikimania 2007; if I can manage the logitistics, it’s an outside possibility.

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