• Marcin de Kaminski wonders who owns knowledge.
    Marcin de Kaminski wonders who owns knowledge.

Should knowledge be free?

Opinion by Marcin de Kaminski, doctoral student in sociology of law and internet researcher at Lund University


Knowledge is capital. Or is it? One of the major questions of our time and for the future is, or should be, who owns the knowledge with which we surround ourselves.

While learning is viewed as a continual and ongoing process, and knowledge as something that must be acquired, the path to open access and free knowledge is not entirely straight.

As in many cases, the contrasts become clear in the wake of digitalisation. On the internet, everything (more or less) is free, but look up any classic textbook (even a digital version) and the small print will state “all rights reserved” at the start or the end. Just to make clear. ‘Real knowledge’ isn’t free. You need money to acquire it, a context to develop it and permission to refine it.

More routes to increased learning
However, a change is in sight. Despite strong opposition from copyright supporters, knowledge hawkers and information parasites, more and more routes to increased learning are opening up. More and more universities, particularly state universities, are encouraging their researchers to publish their findings in open databases. Renowned higher education institutions have intensified their development of online courses open to anyone with an interest in the subject, with Harvard and Oxford leading the way. This is excellent and makes us optimistic for the future.

Opponents have argued that knowledge is being devalued. However, there are strong arguments that their concerns are unfounded. Both the universities’ MOOC initiatives (massive open online courses) and a more general focus on open educational resources (OER) are rather a guarantee that good, scientifically grounded and approved knowledge is disseminated to a larger number of interested recipients than has previously been possible.

Rather than the fairly uncritical hobby research found online, a formalised academic initiative for open access to knowledge would be desirable. It is also financially viable to release knowledge freely, or at least more freely. By encouraging researchers to go over to open licences and publication, Harvard University was able to make savings of USD 3.5 million a year, most of which was savings on licence fees and costs relating to copyright.

“Who owns the knowledge with which we surround ourselves.”

Teaching materials for all
The government-led OER initiative in Poland worked in partnership with academic institutions to create a library of teaching materials that could enable less well-off citizens to get an education. In Poland, school pupils buy their own textbooks, and as the not uncommon minimum wage is the equivalent of around SEK 2 000 a month, children of families on low incomes often do not enter higher education.

Digital participation
In a time when everything around us appears to be tightly connected to the flow of information, when we talk about lifelong learning and the value of both social and digital participation, it would seem reasonable that we all should be on that path, beyond the fixed and old-fashioned ideas. We can set the capital free to own it together.

Photo: Staffan Gustavsson

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