The Lure of the Other IP, Intellectual Philanthropy

It’s funny how you can work in a field for a good number of years and completely miss an extremely pertinent term for that field. Then, suddenly it strikes you as particularly apt, and leaves you wondering how you had missed it. I have been working on questions of open access to research and scholarship for a little more than a decade, and last week I ran into intellectual philanthropy in a 2011 book by Taylor Walsh entitled Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses. Intellectual philanthropy struck me as the perfect complement to the other IP, namely intellectual property. And sure enough, I could find earlier instances of its use across the last decade. I had overlooked the yin and yang of intellectual work.

The old and common IP was all about exclusivity and rights, legal suits and court cases. This new, charitable form, was about the gift of knowledge. Walsh was using intellectual philanthropy to describe how elite schools like MIT and Yale were sharing their course materials and videos with the world, funded by million-dollar grants for the Hewlett, Sloan and other foundations. At first, I was entirely taken with the term. Intellectual philanthropy spoke to the generous sharing of idea, as faculty willingly contributed what they were doing in the classroom for the elucidation of others. A gift that kept on giving, much like the work that I have been doing to encourage faculty to see to it that a copy of their published work is made freely available to interested readers.

Great in principle, if a little messy in the details, as I discovered from the tale Walsh told about the unlocking of the gates at these leading universities. You discover that the faculty were given stipends as incentives to participate in these programs, which for some might diminish the philanthropic aspect, as did the universities making hay in the press out of these gifts, while ensuring, as Walsh frames it, that there is no brand dilution, in fact, just the opposite. Then, when the foundations failed to renew their large grants to these institutions, because foundations favor seeding and rarely hang around for the heavy weeding and harvesting, it gave the recipient universities pause. The talk turns to the “sustainability” of such initiatives, which also seems to raise questions about the philanthropic spirit at work here.

But all of that apart, something else may be amiss. It strikes me that intellectual philanthropy may not be the right way to think of universities sharing a greater part of their knowledge assets with the wider community. The concept of philanthropy is, of course, critical to higher education in many ways. The university is itself the recipient not only of foundation awards, but gifts, tax breaks, government grants and various exemptions that reflect its recognized status as a public good. It may have a brand to manage; it may give rise to spin-offs and start-ups; it may reap considerable returns on patents. But the teaching and research stand, in the first instance, as a public resource, and this warrants its distinct and gifted status within the larger society.

And this is why, after my initial delight in a new form of IP, I now find intellectual philanthropy the wrong idea. Consider how the philanthropic act is a voluntary, unexpected form of generosity, that sets it apart from the one’s daily business, at arm’s length from one’s other interests. This is what often defines a gift to a university. It is not, however, what should define a university’s effort to extend the circle of beneficiaries of its academic labors.

A university’s efforts to use new technologies to increase access to its research or its courses would be far better cast as a recognition (and reinforcement) of the public good that this work represents. There are new ways of sharing this sort of work today, the university might say, and it is a duty and a delight to offer more of what we do to more people, in ways that do not diminish in the least our ability to do what we do as well as we do. Integrating such sharing into our daily work, whether by posting a syllabus, lecture, or a preprint up on the web, just seems to entirely consistent with the nature of the university’s work and its claim on resources and privileges. Intellectual philanthropy – as attractive as it may be in this great age of giving following on Buffet and Gates – represents a category mistake when applied to the university. We should not pretend to be giving to the public what is already theirs, not only in principle, but increasingly through innovation and commitment among faculty, in practice.

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