The Knowledge Commons

With knowledge we refer to all types of understanding gained through experience or study, which includes scientific, scholarly and indigenous knowledge as well as music and the arts. Considering knowledge as a commons—as a shared resource—allows us to understand both its limitless possibilities and what threatens it. A knowledge commons perspective offers a way forward for designing institutions that sanction and facilitate equitable access to knowledge goods. In the age of information and knowledge economies, access to knowledge has become one of the key social justice issues of our time. The rapid advances in technologies of the past two decades have significantly altered and improved the ways that data and information can be produced, disseminated, managed, and used in science, innovation, culture, and many other spheres.

Intellectual property rights

Intellectual property right have been designed to provide incentives for the production of knowledge. Yet, at the same time knowledge is now subject to limiting enclosure through those intellectual property rights. Most notorious enclosures of knowledge – and therewith the exclusion of many- are related to the struggles for access to health, education, science and food. Monopolies pricing essential medicines out of reach for the majority of the world’s population are accepted as a necessary evil of the pharmaceutical innovation system. Subscriptions to scientific publications crippling universities budgets, slowing down innovation and making it impossible for those in developing countries to have access are the norm. Increasingly we see life forms like plant seeds and genes being aggressively patented. Also, in many of these cases public money made a large contribution to the producing of the knowledge`, in universities or research institutes and with grants or subsidies.

Sharing & Collaboration

Sharing valuable knowledge enhances socially useful innovation and can further the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of all. The design, production and governance of knowledge goods and systems have to take this into account. Institutional set ups need to allow for a further exploration of models that promote open and collaborative innovation; models that ensure broad access to public knowledge goods such as medicines, educational resources, creative works and research data. Knowledge commons can allow for collaborative and decentralized production, now made possible by the advancement of technology. There has been a revolutionary rise of effective cooperative efforts- peer-to-peer production of information, knowledge and culture – typified by the emergence of free and open source software. Wikipedia and 3d printing are illustrative examples, but we also see increasing open source and collaborative initiatives in biomedical development, or the rise in importance of crowdsourcing platforms and citizen journalism.

Transparency, Access and Participation 

Furthermore, access to knowledge enables participation and voice – knowledge commons provide shared spaces that enable free speech and democratic processes. Here, transparency of public institutions and decision-making is key. Currently, a lack of social awareness and citizen engagement exists regarding the importance of access to knowledge in many spheres of our lives. At the same time there is a need for careful thought on the challenges, contradictions and ideas surrounding the commons and access to knowledge. One obvious challenge is that of privacy regarding data such a health data and how to reconcile that with the public benefits of open data policies. It is critical that a broad social consciousness emerges on the knowledge commons that appreciates the different access to knowledge issues and their broader social justice implications.

The EU and the Commons: A Commons Approach to European Knowledge Policy