Friday, 20 November 2009

Open knowledge and the role of public funding

I read with interest that Rupert Murdoch intends limiting Google access to its news pages. It shows that Murdoch has no concept of the need for freely moving knowledge to increase human productivity but wishes instead to make a more successful business model for his company. He can do as he wishes however (no matter how much may will disapprove), as the content of his news pages are fully in his control. What if knowledge is created by public funds, should we charge for this? I argue that any research funded by the public purse should be free of intellectual property rights (IPR) as it is a public good paid for by the public. This is called open source knowledge and has a key benefit, anyone can apply it free of charge widening the impact of the generated knowledge. Economists have argued for many years that barriers in market places cause market imbalances that are detrimental to ideal consumption patterns. Usually the imbalance will create unfair pricing. Surely if knowledge produced within a university environment, paid for by tax payers, it must be made freely available to those that want it? I worry about the development of the need for universities to encourage IPR in academic research. Universities are here to expand the body of knowledge and encourage its use in the wider community via a number of channels. Restrict its use via stringent IPR policies and it will be used less. This undoubtedly will reduce the impact academics would hope for in their research and stifle further innovation. It is fair that private organisations that generate knowledge or processes that their IPR be protected. Protection of IPR in this case increases innovation as private investors are made confident that investment is protected underlaw. However, by encouraging universities to be guided into profit making IPR research, the fundamental way that knowledge generates changes. Academics for the most part are not financially orientated but do what they do to maximise the benefit to society. Add a profit motive to this activity and the role becomes one of generating profit on your research and suddenly the knowledge growth model falters. Why am I writing this in a technology blog? The Lancaster Centre for e-Science produces knowledge in the form of software and papers about technology. Every item we produce is governed by open-source attribution lisences. This means that everything we produce is given to the world for free use. This widens our societal impact to the maximum possible by taking away legal and economic cost barriers. This approach does not mean research spin off companies cannot be formed successfully. The academic skill base is huge, and it's one thing creating knowledge and giving it way and then developing it into a business model. It takes skill to do this and this skill needs to be paid for.

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