Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property

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* Book: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property by Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds.). Zone Books, 2010

URL = free downloadable copy

= takes as its subject this new field of activism and advocacy and the new political and conceptual conflicts occurring in the domain of intellectual property.


1. Vera Franz:

"This book is a major contribution to the A2K movement. I think it’s so important because the movement as I mentioned is very eclectic and diverse. There is no secretariat or governance per se: the movement is disorganized in the best sense of the word. So I think this book really helps the movement to continue to shape its identity. It also, very importantly, draws attention to some of the questions we have not yet solved. The two editors who produced it have done a stellar job in making the issues accessible and, hopefully, sparking the interest of people, who to date were not interested in copyright and patents, to join in and make a contribution." (


“Why is intellectual property becoming the object of a new global politics today?

Can file sharers, software programmers, subsistence farmers, and HIV-​­ positive people find useful common cause in their joint opposition to existing regimes of intellectual property? What concepts might unite the emerging A2K coalition, and what issues might fracture it? What is at stake with the use of the term “access” as a fulcrum of this mobilization? Is A2K more than an agenda for those opposed to restrictions on intellectual property—and should it be?

This volume takes such questions as its object. It aims to make this new field of political contention accessible to those unfamiliar with it and to provide a place for those generating it to analyze its evolution, goals, tensions, and future. The contributions come from a varied mix of activists and academics and from different parts of the world. This makes for an eclectic and sometimes even uncomfortable mix, one true to the emerging dynamics of the A2K movement itself. Their subjects are also diverse, part of our own editorial attempt to avoid narrowly prescribing the con- tours of A2K even as we inevitably, through these same selections, construct them.

The book itself is divided into four parts and an epilogue.

The first section offers two introductions to the field of A2K. It should serve to orient readers entirely new to debates over intellectual property, but also to provide fodder for debate among those who consider themselves peripheral or central actors in the movement itself. The first introduction, by Amy Kapczynski, offers a conceptual genealogy of the A2K movement—an account of the concepts and arguments that its participants are generating in order to theorize their common condition and to undermine the narrative about intellectual property that has justified the expansion of this form of law and governance over the past few decades.

The second introduction, by Gaëlle Krikorian, examines A2K as a field of activism. It describes how the mobilization has emerged and organized itself using the issue of “access,” the technological and political context to which the movement corresponds, the representations and practices it engages, and its political stakes both as a form of social mobilization and as an alternative to intellectual property rights extremism.

The second section of the book provides a geography of the new field of activism and advocacy that constitutes A2K. With no pretense to being comprehensive, it illuminates a series of historical moments that have decisively marked the emergence of the politics of A2K. It thus identifies a series of fronts along which intellectual property conflicts are crystallizing and sketches A2K mobilizations across a spectrum of political space and time.

In this section, Ahmed Abdel Latif describes how A2K has been framed as a concept and the genesis of the A2K name, thereby locating A2K as a field of forces gathering together under a common banner. Thereafter, several historical moments in A2K illustrate how, where, and when certain key issues surfaced and were rendered the subject of politics. Ellen ‘t Hoen describes how health activists working on pharmaceutical policy came to conceptualize intellectual property as central to their struggles. Sangeeta Shashikant narrates the behind-the-scenes forces that led to one of the most salient moments of success for A2K, the Doha Declaration of the World Trade Organization, which declared that intellectual property rights do not trump public health. Moving from medicines to the emerging politics of hackers, Philippe Aigrain analyzes the successful mobilization against the codification of software patents at the European Parliament. The last contribution in this section comes from Viviana Muñoz Tellez and Sisule F. Musungu, who describe two recent and dramatic defeats for intellectual property absolutism at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In the first, A2K activists working with developing-country governments outflanked their opponents, proposing a new “development agenda” that seeks to reorient the work of WIPO to respond to the needs of those living in the Global South. In the second, A2K activists and their allies mobilized to defeat a new WIPO Broadcasting Treaty that had been heavily promoted by forces in the old media seeking to extend their control over the domain of new media.

The third section of the book offers varying visions—perhaps complementary, perhaps at odds with one another—of the conceptual terrain of the A2K movement. It charts the evolution of ideas and the surfacing of arguments within the movement and thereby explores how the issue of intellectual property has been politicized and how our collective understandings of what is at stake in these debates have been tentatively transformed by A2K activists.

The section begins with Peter Drahos’s account of the global mobilization of intellectual property owners that preceded and helped to shape A2K. That mobilization was exceptionally successful—in a matter of years, it secured a dramatic reordering of the global governance of intellectual property, most importantly by inserting intellectual property obligations into the new World Trade Organization.

These efforts were sustained by the ideological interventions that Drahos describes.

In response to these interventions, A2K advocates have attempted to reframe public understandings regarding the just and efficient conditions for the use, creation, and re-creation of knowledge. Many use the issue of access as a lens, possibly theoretical and certainly strategic, to refocus traditional political configurations around intellectual property and to set out their claims. Yochai Benkler articulates the “information commons” as the central concept of A2K and describes the historical and political forces that converged to create the conditions for this striking new field of political coalition. Interventions by Carlos M. Correa,

Roberto Verzola, Gaëlle Krikorian, Jeffrey Atteberry, and Lawrence Liang explore paradoxes and tensions in the emerging discourse of A2K along vectors ranging from indigenous knowledge, in the essay by Carlos Correa, to the notion of the commons, in Jeffrey Atteberry’s contribution, and the figure of the pirate, in one of the essays by Lawrence Liang. Robert Verzola and Lawrence Liang, in another essay, each offer us new paradigms for the relationship between knowledge and the production and control of knowledge-embedded goods, thus offering us new ways in which to think about the struggle between A2K and intellectual property.

Verzola theorizes the commonalities between technological measures used to disrupt the reproducibility of information in the digital and agricultural realms and challenges us to rethink the domain of information production as one of abundance and fertility, rather than scarcity. Liang explores etymological links between identity and property and considers the implications of thinking about intellectual and cultural production through the dynamics of relationality, rather than possession. Gaëlle Krikorian, focusing on free-trade agreements, offers an analysis of the political environment and the political rationales of the maximalization of intellectual property protection and examines some of the perspectives and experiences of the resistances to it.

The section closes with an opening, reproducing questions that we distributed to a group of A2K actors who have different approaches to and involvements in the movement—Onno Purbo, Jo Walsh, Anil Gupta, and Rick Falkvinge. The questions invited them to elaborate on the concepts and ideology central to A2K, and their responses illustrate the diversity of views on these matters that exist within the movement.

A2K activists have proven remarkably creative and successful in recent years, not only in contesting the contours of intellectual property law, but also in identifying weaknesses and failures in the regime of intellectual property, spaces where new regimes for generating and managing knowledge and knowledge goods might evolve. The third section of the book describes A2K by exploring its strategies and tactics. It thereby seeks to illuminate how the mobilization has politicized this previously “technical” area of law and policy and at times has successfully combated very well-resourced and politically powerful opponents.

By comparing different strands within A2K, Susan K. Sell articulates the various grammars of claims-making of movements within the movement. A series of detailed case studies of strategies deployed in specific contexts then permits us to mark and critically assess the choices and stances being made in the name of A2K:

in India, the choice NGOs made to master and rework the discourse of patent law in order to oppose drug patents (Chan Park and Leena Menghaney); in Thailand, the efforts made to reduce medicine prices by pressing the government legally to override patents (Jiraporn Limpananont and Kannikar Kijtiwatchakul); in South Africa and elsewhere, the deployment of the rhetoric and law of competition to attack exclusive rights in information (Sean Flynn); in an NGO in the United States, the creation of an open-access journal that sought to develop knowledge- governance principles and practices consistent with the commitments of the movement (Manon A. Ress); at technological standard-setting organizations, debates over the nature and terms of open standards (Laura DeNardis); at WIPO, attempts to introduce new multilateral agreements to defend the rights of the visually impaired and rebalance the current copyright regime (Vera Franz); and finally, in the domain of global health law, the promotion of alternative models for medical research and development that would better combine the twin goals of access and innovation (Spring Gombe and James Love).

This section next reproduces a series of questions and responses solicited from advocates (Harini Amarasuyiya, Vera Franz, Heeseob Nam, Carolina Rossini, and Dileepa Witharana) regarding contemporary strategic and tactical opportunities and dilemmas in A2K. Participants were invited to reflect upon how the movements and groups with which they are associated have articulated their principles and campaigns, defined their goals and translated these into practice, and related to law, the state, private interests, and others in the A2K coalition.

The section closes with two interviews that provide practical as well as theoretical dialogues on the transformations associated with A2K as they affect society and the economy. Yann Moulier Boutang and Gaëlle Krikorian engage the implications of the emergence of “cognitive capitalism” for knowledge industries as well as for governments and individuals. Charles Igwe and Achal Prabhala discuss the knowledge-governance and dissemination strategies that characterize the Indian and Nigerian film industries and how these might inform debates about A2K.

To end the volume in a mode that invites continuing reflection, an epilogue offers a series of visions of the future by authors—Sarah Deutsch, Gaëlle Krikorian, Eloan dos Santos Pinheiro, Hala Essalmawi, and Roberto Verzola—who were asked to imagine best-case and worst-case scenarios of the regulation and production of knowledge in their field of interest. Unconstrained by the imperative to describe “likely” scenarios, they offer us alternative visions that illuminate the stakes of the choices that we make today and how these choices could portend radically different futures for access to knowledge.

As the diversity of the volume demonstrates, the conceptual and political dynamics of the A2K movement reveal it as a mobilization that is very much still in motion. Neither in the introductions that follow nor in this collection as a whole do we purport to describe fully, account for, or locate the movement for access to knowledge. The name itself is contestable and may not be the one that represents this new politics over time. Nor is it clear what shape this new politics will take — how much it will tend toward conceptions of information and how much toward issues of knowledge, how much it will attend to or be driven by the concerns of the Global South as opposed to those of the North, what modes of engagement with law and with activism will characterize the mobilization over time, or who will constitute the center and who the periphery when historians write the story of A2K.

But despite this still-provisional nature, the A2K movement has already begun to reveal an important reality: Today, freedom and justice are increasingly mediated by decisions that were until recently considered supremely technical—decisions about the scope of patent law, about exceptions and limitations to copyright for the blind, about the differential virtues of prizes and patents for stimulating government investment in neglected diseases. By politicizing a discourse that was once highly technocratic, the A2K movement is rendering visible once-obscure vectors of the transmission of wealth and of power over life and death. It demands that the concepts and terms central to intellectual property be introduced into everyday discourse and become legible in their political implications around the world. This volume, we hope, will assist in that project."


part one: introduction

  • Access to Knowledge: A Conceptual Genealogy, Amy Kapczynski
  • Access to Knowledge as a Field of Activism, Gaëlle Krikorian

part two: the emergence of the politics of a2k

  • Emergence of the A2K Movement: The Reminiscences and Reflections of a Developing-Country Delegate, Ahmed Abdel Latif
  • Revised Drug Strategy: Access to Essential Medicines, The Intellectual Property, and the World Health Organization, Ellen ‘t Hoen
  • Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health: The An Impetus for Access to Medicines, Sangeeta Shashikant
  • Uncertain Victory: The 2005 Rejection of Software Patents. An by the European Parliament, Philippe Aigrain
  • A2K at WIPO: The Development Agenda and the Debate on the Proposed Broadcasting Treaty, Viviana Muñoz Tellez and Sisule F. Musungu

part three: the conceptual terrain of a2k

  • “IP World”—Made by TNC Inc., Peter Drahos
  • The Idea of Access to Knowledge and the Information Commons: Long-Term Trends and Basic Elements, Yochai Benkler
  • Access to Knowledge: The Case of Indigenous and Traditional Knowledge, Carlos M. Correa
  • Undermining Abundance: Counterproductive Uses of Technology and Law in Nature, Agriculture, and the Information Sector, Roberto Verzola
  • Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Book. Lawrence Liang
  • The Free-Trade Agreements and Neoliberalism: How to Derail the Political Rationales that Impose Strong Intellectual Property Protection, Gaëlle Krikorian
  • A2K Theory and the Postcolonial Commons, Jeffrey Atteberry
  • Beyond Representation: The Figure of the Pirate, Lawrence Liang
  • Virtual Roundtable on A2K Politics, Amy Kapczynski and Gaëlle Krikorian, with Onno Purbo, Jo Walsh, Anil Gupta, and Rick Falkvinge

part four: strategies and tactics of a2k

  • A Comparison of A2K Movements: From Medicines to Farmers, Susan K. Sell
  • TRIPS Flexibilities: The Scope of Patentability and Oppositions to Patents in India, Chan Park and Leena Menghaney
  • TRIPS Flexibilities in Thailand: Between Law and Politics, Jiraporn Limpananont and Kannikar Kijtiwatchakul
  • Using Competition Law to Promote Access to Knowledge, Sean M. Flynn
  • Open-Access Publishing: From Principles to Practice, Manon A. Ress
  • The Global Politics of Interoperability, Laura DeNardis
  • Back to Balance: Limitations and Exceptions to Copyright, Vera Franz
  • New Medicines and Vaccines: Access, Incentives to Investment, and Freedom to Innovate, Spring Gombe and James Love
  • Virtual Roundtable on A2K Strategies: Interventions and Dilemmas, Amy Kapczynski and Gaëlle Krikorian, with Harini Amarasuriya, Vera Franz, Heeseob Nam, Carolina Rossini, and Dileepa Witharana
  • Interview with Yann Moulier Boutang, Gaëlle Krikorian
  • Nollywood: How It Works— A Conversation with Charles Igwe, Achal Prabhala


Amy Kapczynski on TRIPS

See our entry on TRIPS

Legitimating intellectual property in the information age

By Amy Kapczynski:

"The legitimation narrative of intellectual property today is not a coherent theory, but a thaumatrope—two different images on a card or disk, recto and verso, that when spun on an axis give the appearance of a single, unified image. One image is derived from the field of information economics, but omits the skepticism about intellectual property present in that field. The other screen is derived from the theories of the Chicago School of economics about the superiority of private-prop- erty rights in material resources, but suppresses the many significant differences between the economics of land and the economics of information.

We can call the result the “despotic dominion” account of intellectual property law—the notion that the right to intellectual property is, or should be, as William Blackstone described the right to material property, “that sole and despotic domin- ion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.” 41 Property here is defined as the right of a single individual to be the gatekeeper with respect to a resource and to act autocratically with respect to decisions about its use. This vision of property is sustained by the notion that only the individual owner, and not the state, community, or nonowners, may make decisions about the price or terms of transactions around that property.

This account should not be confused with actual existing intellectual prop- erty law (or actually existing property law, for that matter).42 Rather, the despotic dominion account is a narrative that has been used to justify the aggressive expan- ion of intellectual property rights in recent years, and it is thus this narrative that A2K confronts as it seeks to change the politics of intellectual property law today.

The first image in the despotic dominion account draws selectively on the field of information economics, arguing that intellectual property is needed to promote investment in informational goods. Information, we are told, is typically expensive to produce, but cheap to reproduce. For example, it is relatively expensive to synthe- size and test a new pharmaceutical compound or to produce a major motion picture.

Under today’s technological conditions, it is also relatively cheap to reverse engineer a drug or to copy a DVD. In an unregulated market, second-comers could reproduce the drug or movie, paying only the cost of copying and without paying the full costs of the producing of the drug or movie in the first place. These “free riders” would be able to drive the innovator from the marketplace, because they would be able to sell the drug or movie more cheaply. The result: Rational actors will not develop drugs or make major motion pictures, because they will be unable to turn a profit, and indeed may suffer a loss, being unable to recoup their original investment. Enter the deus ex machina of intellectual property rights. Patents and copy- rights give individuals (or more likely, firms) the right to prevent others from copying their creations for a period of time. This lets them recoup their invest- ments and make a profit. Exclusion rights thus generate markets in information, solving the free-rider problem and aligning individual incentives with social good.

Consider the suppositions of this first image: Creative and scientific works are best generated by rational, self-interested market actors who are motivated by profit. Intellectual property law provides the control needed to “incentivize” this creativity, because it permits individuals to profit through the sale of infor- mational goods. Individual legal entitlements such as these are necessary because rational creators will not create if they cannot profit and/or if others can ride free. When they can profit, creators will create in accordance with social welfare, as expressed by demand for commodities in the marketplace. In this model, if we want creativity and the benefits associated with it, we must pay for it. The best, most efficient way to pay is with a system of private, individual rights.

This account is not to be confused with theories of intellectual property as articulated in the field of information economics. That field tends to be much more ambivalent about the effects of intellectual property rights because of the ineffi- ciencies that accompany them."

(Source, from the introduction: Access to Knowledge: A Conceptual Genealogy. Amy Kapczynski. In the book: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property)

What Information Economics says about the inefficiencies of IP Laws:

By Amy Kapczynski:

In economic terminology, information is a “nonrival” good: One person may “consume” it without limiting the amount available to another. Another way of putting this is that information—inherently—is not consumable. If I have an apple, either you can eat it, or I can eat it. (We can share it, but we can’t each have the whole apple.) But if I make up a catchy tune, we can both sing it. I won’t have any less of it because you have more of it. All information—from cooking recipes, to scientific formulas, to MP3 files—has this infinitely shareable quality. In economic terms, the marginal cost of production of information is zero.

Once a scientist divines a new scientific theory, she can share it freely without spending any more energy or time to produce it again.44 Because the marginal cost of information is zero, the ideal price of information in a competitive market is also zero. As a result, intellectual property rights create “static” (short-run) inefficiencies. They tend to raise the prices of informational goods above their marginal cost of production, meaning that fewer people have access to these goods than should.

Where there are no adequate substitutes for a good, as may be the case with a patented medicine, intellectual property rights can also generate monopolies. Under conventional economic models, a monopolist will raise prices and reduce output, generating more profits for itself, but also generating deadweight social loss—a further static inefficiency.46 Intellectual property also has ambiguous effects on dynamic (long-run) efficiency. Because information is both an input and an output of its own production process, intellectual property gives previous creators the power to tax new creators, thus raising the cost of producing the next generation of innovations and pricing out some potential creators.

Other mechanisms to promote investment in new informational goods are widely discussed in the field of information economics. The government can pay, as it often does, for example, with direct grants to scientists or artists or by the creation of financial or reputational prizes that can induce innovation. When innovation and creativity are paid for in this way, the results can be made freely available, as they are, for example, when the U.S. government funds certain basic scientific research or the creation of weather or mapping data. This eliminates the inefficiencies associated with intellectual property rights, leading eminent economists to conclude that government provisioning is superior to intellectual property rights as a strategy to solve the provisioning problem of information.47

So why, then, should we conclude that private intellectual property rights are superior to other systems of promoting creativity and innovation, such as direct government funding? ”

(Source, from the introduction: Access to Knowledge: A Conceptual Genealogy. By Amy Kapczynski. In the book: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property)

Amy Kapczynski on the Evolution of Public Domain Concept in the A2K Movement

See our entry on the Public Domain

Amy Kapczynski on Access in the Field of Medicine

See our entry on Access to Medicines

What is the Nature of Freedom in A2K demands?

By Amy Kapczynski:

* What is the nature of the freedom that a2k demands?

Often, A2K thinkers speak of freedom (such as the freedom of the public domain)

as a place free of permission.

Lawrence Lessig states it most plainly:

“The opposite of a free culture is a ‘permission culture.’”

But are A2K advocates really committed to a vision that posits freedom as a space where one never needs permission— as a space beyond control? If so, what of the very substantial controls that some groups, from free-software programmers to proponents of traditional knowledge, seek to impose upon certain forms of knowledge? Creative Commons, a high-profile organization that Lessig himself founded, offers individuals a set of copyright licenses that they can use to give others more freedoms than copyright law otherwise would. But some of these licenses—not uncontroversially within A2K circles— preclude others from creating derivative works, making use of precisely the power of permission in the service of authorial control.

In fact, no such simple principle of opposition to control can be derived from the thought of A2K. If it could, it would commit A2K also to a series of what are likely to be untenable positions with respect to nonproperty forms of control that can be described as demands for “permission,” such as those related to privacy and network security. Is it in fact possible to assume a simple opposition between freedom and control, or are the two instead intimately interconnected and interdependent in the age of digital networks?89 A2K advocates must envision a particular mode of control or demand for permission that they oppose. How, though, should this be characterized?

The A2K movement’s conception of freedom also contains within it a certain fractured relationship to markets. The public domain, for example, is sometimes figured as a space free from markets, a space where noncommercially motivated creators have the resources and room to play.90 At other times—and perhaps more often—it is figured as a space free for markets where not only amateurs can forage, but where corporations can compete without monopolies, to the benefit of the public as consumers.91 Can the same domain be both the space of freedom from commerce and the space of freedom for commerce?

When A2K advocates articulate the public domain as a space that is equally— and properly—open to the exploitation of capital and communities alike, it suggests that this competition is itself a free and equal one. But is the public domain in fact universally “free” in a substantive fashion, when those who create from its resources may enclose the results? Does leaving the public domain free in this sense simply mean that those with resources will be able to make use of this (publicly renewed and subsidized) resource and then enclose the results, to the systematic disadvantage of those who continue to operate outside of the confines of property? Is this freedom a structurally unequal freedom, one that can be remedied only by a positive concept of public property (or of a commons) that cannot be the subject of such extraction?

This question is raised most acutely by groups focused on the Global South, such as the farmers’ rights group GRAIN, which expresses skepticism about “the merits of concepts such as the ‘public domain’ . . . if putting seeds in the public domain means Monsanto can inject them with Terminator genes to destroy peasant agriculture.”92 The muted (or repressed) debate within the A2K movement over the proper status of traditional knowledge (is it rightfully the property of local communities, or part of the public domain open to all?) also evinces the strains of this tension.

Finally, can the freedom imagined by A2K be produced by merely formal lack of (the wrong kind of) constraint, for example, by the lack of the constraints imposed by intellectual property law? Or does it require something more substantive, an affirmative ability, for example, to access works in the public domain, or the tools of the new “remix culture”?94 Is the freedom of the public domain or the commons really worthy of the name if the majority of the world has no access to the means needed to participate in it—for example, education, computers, and affordable access to digital networks? At the close of 2007, only one-fifth of the world’s population was using the Internet, and this use was highly skewed geographically: Only 4 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa had such access.95 Although A2K thinkers invoke a robust conception of freedom that would require the ability in fact to access the goods of which they speak, in practice, they devote little attention to the profound inequalities in access to digital networks. Can A2K advocates really claim to have a vision of freedom in the digital age if they do not do more to theorize and demand affirmative access to the tools to create and exchange information and knowledge?

* is a2k committed more to the model of the public domain or of the commons? can it be committed to both?

The A2K movement valorizes the space of both the public domain and the commons, and yet as we’ve seen, these two spaces are governed in importantly different ways. The commons is controlled, often through the use of intellectual property law itself. The public domain is instead a space beyond intellectual property law, where no one has the right to extract permission or price.

Can the A2K movement be committed to both? If so, this would require restructuring how the commons and public domain are each understood. A2K rhetoric today arguably pastoralizes the commons, eliding the degree to which communal decision making may be characterized by hierarchy and exclusion, rather than by equality and open participation. To put it differently, why should we view a collective despot as an improvement over an individual despot?

In fact, A2K advocates cannot and most of the time do not envision the commons as just any kind of collectivity. Some systems of collective management are, after all, fully compatible with expansive conceptions of intellectual property rights, such as the collective rights organizations that enforce the rights of copyright holders in music.97 Corporations that mobilize intellectual property norms in the service of exclusivity and maximal profit are of course in some sense “collective” entities, governed by groups of corporate officers and answerable to shareholders. The A2K commons thus cannot be understood simply as a preference for collective over individual governance. Some content must be given to the concept of the collective and its terms of engagement. Like the concept of freedom, the concept of the commons (if it is to lay claim to an ethic that differs substantially from that of intellectual property) must be more substantively defined.

As the example of free software discussed above suggests, when A2K advocates invoke the commons, they conjure forth a community that labors cooperatively and that labors under shared norms. Those norms differ not just in their recognition rule—the metarule that determines what counts as valid law—but also in their substance from the rules of intellectual property. 98 The commons of software in fact has much in common with the public domain, because its rules of engagement are similar to those that characterize the public domain. Still, they are not identical. Individuals can take from the public domain and not replenish it with their creations. Moreover, its contours and rules are not established by a community of creators, but rather by a community of citizens who authorize the law of intellectual property—which in turn defines the limits of the public domain. Which is the appropriate community of lawmakers, and which the appropriate relation to what came before?

* is information really different enough ?

Within the emerging ideology of the A2K movement is a strand that envisions it as postideology, even, perhaps, postpolitical. This is evident particularly in the self-styled political agnosticism that characterizes the free and open-source software movement and in the writings of A2K thinkers who are most immersed in the discourses of open source and the revolutionary potential of the networked digital age.99 In this volume, Benkler, for example, argues that the ideas of A2K, and in particular of “the information commons and the rise of networked cooperation” can “subvert the traditional left-right divide . . . and provide the platform on which political and economic interests meet around a common institutional and organizational agenda.” A2K can appeal, he argues, to “libertarians, liberals, the postsocialist left, and anarchists,” unifying forces on the left and right that usually understand themselves to be at odds with one another.100

Such ideological catholicism, even pragmatism, is perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of the A2K movement, particularly at a time when some on the left are calling for a more serious reckoning with the benefits of well-regulated markets and the dangers of ideological rigidity. 101 But the notion that the A2K movement can exceed the traditional divide between classical free-market liberals and the progressive left, that A2K can embrace both the market and the nonmarket, and that A2K advocates need not decide between frames of freedom, justice, or efficiency is surely contestable.

At its core, the sense that the A2K movement can exceed these divides rests crucially on the claim that information is subject to different dynamics than the world of material goods, particularly in the networked digital age. For Benkler, for example, it is “the rise of the networked information economy [that] has created the material conditions for the confluence of freedom, justice, and efficacy understood as effective learning and innovation.” That is because in this new environment, productivity and efficiency can be achieved through increasingly open dynamics of sharing and cooperation, both within and outside of markets. “Freedom and efficacy, then, will be the interface with both liberalisms, market and social. Justice and freedom in the sense of the dissipation of structured, stable hierarchical power will be the interface between liberalism and the left.”102

But the question is, is information different enough? As noted above, some within the A2K movement doubt that the poor can compete in a realm of “free” information if that freedom is granted equally to the powerful and the powerless. To paraphrase Anatole France, is this just a kind of majestic equality that leaves the rich and poor equally free to exploit the potential of biotechnology and software engineering? Will resources determine, ultimately, who is heard in the space of “free and open” networks? Can true democratization emerge from spaces of creation and meaning making that are not themselves first radically democratized?

Or is the point of A2K thinkers instead that in the realm of information, we are relatively more free and can do more than ever before—if not everything—to reconcile our commitments to freedom, justice, and efficiency? There is a difference, after all, in a competition between the subsistence fisherman and the commercial fishing fleet and between the unknown garage band and the corporately manufactured pop star. There are only so many fish to go around, but there is no limit, theoretically, to the number of songs that can be written. As importantly, according to A2K advocates, garage bands can increasingly compete with studio-driven stars because of the power of digital networks to give creators access to a public and the power of these same networks to lower dramatically the costs of production of informational goods. In the information realm, in a sense, there are always more fish, because the fish there are subject to the rules of immaterial, rather than material goods. And the advent of ubiquitous digital networks means a less unequal competition in the struggle to create new information and to gain access to new publics.

The claim that the A2K movement can move beyond the traditional ideological battles between formal and substantive conceptions of freedom, between the freedom of the market and freedom from the market, is thus intimately bound up with the idea that we can move beyond scarcity in the information age. As Verzola puts it, material abundance is limited because “it must eventually express itself in terms of biomass,” but information abundance “is of the nonmaterial variety. Thus, information goods offer the promise of practically unlimited abundance.”103

In what sense is it useful to conceptualize information as having a kind of abundance that exceeds the material or that is “practically unlimited”? Verzola allows that the realm of information is in fact constrained, in his view “mainly by the limits of human creativity, the storage capacity of media, and the availability of electricity to power servers on the Internet twenty-four hours a day.”104 But there is a utopian strand in A2K thinking that tends to minimize such constraints of mind and environment, suggesting that they need not stand in the way of our ability to think and compute our way to a more just and equal world.

The most enthusiastic proponents of the biotech and open-source software revolutions imagine an era when biology and informatics merge to move us beyond the limits of the physical. But today, half a million women each year still die in childbirth, almost all in developing countries and more than fifty years after the technologies to avert almost all such deaths were developed.105 We already have the technologies and resources to feed and care for many more people than we currently do, suggesting that there is a primary and prominent set of problems that are not technological, but political.106 The dynamics of networked informationalism might help overcome political problems where those problems are rooted in struggles over scarce resources. They could also facilitate more transparency and political participation, addressing failures of political accountability more directly.107

But critical to the postscarcity aspirations of the A2K movement are ques- tions of degree, distribution, and velocity: Will the informational component of our world advance rapidly or evenly enough to overwhelm the persistent inequalities in the material? Will such advances be distributed evenly enough to make the promise of living beyond scarcity a reality for any but the world’s richest? Can we expect a leveling of the pervasive material inequalities in the world if the poor lack access to the labs, computers, and textbooks that would allow them to do more for themselves and if they also lack access to the kind of political power and voice that would allow them to change the terms on which resources and informational goods are currently distributed? Can A2K advocates build a theory of freedom that is based upon the radical political possibilities of the immaterial while also accounting for the crucial moment when the informational intersects with the material in the places that we create and communicate, that we live and die?

* can a2k create a politics of knowledge? what are the proper limits of the politics of a2k?

The A2K movement was deliberately structured around a demand for access to “knowledge.” And yet this introduction and the pages that follow make it clear that A2K actors operate routinely in the idiom of “information,” for example, extolling the importance of the information commons or the lessons of information economics. What difference might this difference make? There are at least two ways to approach the question—by asking what A2K activists invest in their own choice of terms and by investigating the etymological implications of the distinction between information and knowledge.

If A2K theorists talk often about information, why isn’t the A2K movement instead the A2I movement—a mobilization for “access to information”? Ahmed Abdel Latif, in his account of how the term “A2K” was chosen, explains that “at the conceptual level, knowledge, rather than information, is at the heart of the empowerment of individuals and societies. While information is certainly a prerequisite in the generation of knowledge, acquisition of knowledge remains the ultimate goal. Knowledge processes information to produce ideas, analysis, and skills that ideally should contribute to human progress and civilization.”108

The decision to articulate the movement’s demands in relation to knowledge was in part a response to perceived conceptual differences between knowledge and information. Knowledge is a capacity that is central to empowerment—one that relies upon, but is not reducible to information.

How precisely, though, should we understand the difference between knowledge and information? A2K theorists such as Benkler define the distinction in this way: Information is “raw data, scientific reports of the output of scientific discovery, news, and factual reports,” while knowledge is “the set of cultural practices and capacities necessary for processing the information into either new statements into the information exchange, or more important in our context, for practical use of the information in appropriate ways to produce more desirable actions or outcomes from action.”109 Thus, information is objective and external, while knowledge is the capacity to use information to create new information or to use information to generate technical effects in the world (knowledge as “know-how”).

This is narrower than the definition of knowledge that we might derive from etymology or contemporary usage. According to the dictionary, we can “know” anything that we understand through “experience or association.”110 The English word “knowledge” corresponds to the German kennen and French connaître, designating a kind of understanding that comes from the senses. But “knowledge” also incorporates the concepts of wissen and savoir, designating a kind of understanding that is derived from the mind. It thus designates basic acts of human cognition: recognition, acquaintance, intimacy, consciousness, or, “the fact, state, or condition of understanding.”

In its broadest sense, then, knowledge is more than the ability to process information into more information and more know-how.

As Jean-François Lyotard writes, knowledge is <bockquote> a competence that goes beyond the simple determination and application of the criterion of truth, extending to the determination and application of criteria of efficiency (technical qualification), of justice and/or happiness (ethical wisdom), of the beauty of a sound or color (auditory or visual sensibility), etc. Understood in this way, knowledge is what makes someone capable of forming “good” denotative utterances, but also “good” prescriptive and “good” evaluative utterances. . . . It is not a competence relative to a particular class of statements (for example, cognitive ones) to the exclusion of all others.

Knowledge is here a capacity more than it is an object or a possession—a power immanent to intellectual, social, cultural, and technological relations between humans.113 Information, in turn, is the externalized object of this capacity, the part of knowledge that can be systematized and communicated or transmitted to others.

What would it mean for the A2K movement to take the distinction between knowledge and information seriously and to theorize itself as a movement for access not just to information, but to knowledge? At a minimum, using the narrower definition of knowledge proposed by Benkler, it would require a focus not only on extending access to information, but also on extending individual capacities to produce information and to make use of information to produce practical effects in the material world.

As Benkler points out, there is “a genuine limit on the capacity of the networked information economy to improve access to knowledge.” Knowledge cannot be fully externalized into information—it is a capacity, rather than an object.

As such, it does not partake of the same dynamics of plenty that is said to characterize the informational domain. While better access to learning materials can enhance education, learning by doing requires local practice, and the practice of education generally “does not scale across participants, time, and distance.”115

The A2K movement might focus on forms of information regulation that affect the development of knowledge, as it has done to date in work on access to learning materials, open courseware, and lowering intellectual property barriers to distance learning. These moves are more efforts to increase access to information than access to knowledge. If the A2K movement is to embrace its initial identifi­cation with the concept of access to knowledge, it must recognize that while access to some information is clearly a prerequisite of building knowledge in Benkler’s sense, more ubiquitous access to information is not the same thing as more ubiquitous access to knowledge.

Can the A2K movement—as invested as its logic has become in the model of information technologies and the economics of the copy—build a politics of knowledge as a competence? The dream of perfect (and zero-cost) transmissibility cannot survive an encounter with this concept of knowledge, because a competence that cannot be fully externalized and traded, and thus that is embedded in the material, cannot be nonrival. And if knowledge cannot be accessed through a simple download, then a politics of A2K must reach far beyond a politics of enclosure and intellectual property.

Does this mean broadening the A2K mandate to include work on, for example, the financing of primary schools or the effects of austerity budgets on universities around the world? That is one possible outcome. More modestly, it might instead mean that A2K groups recognize their focus is on improving access to information, acknowledge that knowledge is not an object that can simply be downloaded from North to South, and engage openly with those who worry that more information could in some cases not improve, but rather threaten access to knowledge.

What if the A2K movement were instead to embrace the definition of knowledge that corresponds not just to technical or intellectual knowledge, but also, for example, to artistic or ethical knowledge? This would fit well with its attempt to embrace the literary arts, as well as science and technology, but it would also unmoor the movement from the conception of knowledge present in Benkler’s definition. Lyotard’s broader definition requires us to recognize that the criteria for successful knowledge are created, rather than given.

For the A2K movement, such a recognition would imply the need for a politics not just of access to knowledge, but of what counts as knowledge and of who gets to decide what counts. Would this work a fundamental harm to the universalizing aspirations of the A2K movement? Or would it instead make room for A2K advocates to begin to reckon with existing tensions in the movement, for example, surrounding issues of traditional knowledge and the concept of the commons versus the public domain?”

(Source, from the introduction: Access to Knowledge: A Conceptual Genealogy. By Amy Kapczynski. In the book: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property)

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