Could Locke Still Be the Key? Part I

What follows is the opening of a book prospectus I am in the midst of developing for a work on John Locke and what I refer to as the “intellectual properties of learning.” This book grows out of an earlier article I did on Locke’s “common-wealth of learning” and will explore — well, if that’s not clear in the first 800 words of the prospectus, can I reasonably expect a hard-pressed publisher to bite? Putting this in Slaw follows on recent Web 2.0 data-mashups that would drag the book-in-progress into the network, setting it adrift in the blogosphere and giving readers a chance to peer and prod. This seemed to go well for Mackenzie Wark’s Game Theory thanks in part to nifty set-up provided by the Institute of the Future of the Book. I thought I’d jump in at even earlier stage to see what the water’s like and give this project’s buoyancy a bit of a test. I’ll add a further section or two in future Codicilogs.

The Intellectual Properties of Learning: Locke’s Common-Wealth of Learning

For the world of learning, it is surely the best of times. This age of information is marked by increasing ease of access to knowledge. Biomedical researchers working on tropical diseases readily find the latest studies freely available online in the PLoS Journal of Neglected Tropical Diseases and the East Africa Medical Journal, without having to worry if their libraries have been able to afford a subscription; and high school history students studying the American Revolution have a chance to read a facsimile of a letter between Abigail and John Adams discussing the struggle. Yet at this self-same moment, those who live the life of learning must also wonder if it is not the worst of times, an epoch of rising price barriers to research, an era of test-driven classes. Those same tropical disease researchers are finding that most of the articles referenced in those two journals will cost $40 each to view (if their library has not already spent thousands subscribing to the journals the references are in), while university presses feel forced to turn down monographs that might otherwise revise our thinking on the American Revolution, because library budgets for such works has been thoroughly commandeered by journal-price increases. But then, too, those high school student have little enough time for the richness of original sources in history class, given the training and preparation time needed for achievement tests in literacy, mathematics, and science.

The Intellectual Properties of Learning will provide a way forward from this Dickensian divide between the best and worst of times for learning. The book will make clear how the root of the problem lies in treating both a study of the American revolution and a song by Justin Timberlake as indistinguishable forms of intellectual property over which the copyright holder can exercise monopoly rights for decades. Lumping all intellectual properties together like this is simply not the best thing for what John Locke referred to as “the common-wealth of learning,” however well Mr. Timberlake may profit by it. The book will set out how Locke is the source of both problem and resolution within learning’s oddly mixed knowledge economy. After all, no one has had a greater influence over the prevailing theory of property. And yet within his theory, this book will show, is an overlooked place for the distinct intellectual properties of learning.

This book will use the place of learning within this theory of property to work out a series of principles for sorting out the current contradictions afflicting the economics of research and scholarship. It will also present the case for enabling students in school opportunities to experience the intellectual properties of learning, which involves seeing how learning can be a benefit and service to others of a particular sort (to take nothing from Timberlake’s contribution to our lives). How otherwise are we to imagine students being prepared to enter a knowledge-based economy when they have little or no experience of knowingly working with the concept of intellectual properties?

The goal of this book will be to provide scholars, university administrators, scholarly societies, librarians, and policymakers with a basis for sorting out and resolving the research economy’s current contradictions that will include forging new relationships and initiatives among the players in this economy. It will provide, as well, an educational approach to intellectual property that will enable students to both make the distinctions at issue for learning, as well as appreciate the larger concept that plays such a central role in both the commercial and public spheres. In this way, the intent of this book is to help others advance what learning has to offer — as an educational concept, a guide for professional practice, and a public good.

It is certainly apparent at this point that the knowledge economy that underwrites this broadly defined field of learning is more than a little mixed at the moment. At one level, it bears all the irrationality and sense of free-for-all that inevitable follows a new technology’s sweeping all of the old models for doing business before it. Yet it also seems particularly odd to see research, as work that is ostensibly committed to the public interest, divided by opportunistic and altruistic tendencies, and riddled with password protection, digital rights management, and click-to-read open access systems. Learning is at once becoming a much greater part of the larger knowledge-based economy, even as it contributes far more to the public sphere.

The Internet has greatly increased the value of intellectual properties (think, encouraging a thousand business schemes to bloom. Yet just as forcefully, the Internet has facilitated greater openness, speeding up the circulation of ideas, enabling greater collaboration, within this realm of learning. High school students, amateur historians, and professional historians end up contributing to Wikipedia articles. Amateur star-gazers collaborate with professional astronomers on articles for scholarly journals. Within international research communities, data is being shared; research instruments and tools are given away; articles are being placed online for all to read. And nothing less than this cooperative openness has any chance at all of adequately addressing such pressing questions of, for example, global warming, pandemics, and persistent poverty. As Peter Suber, philosopher-champion of open access, puts it “the more knowledge matters, the more open access to that knowledge matters.”


  1. For the past year pluss, I’ve been maintaining what amounts to a book-in-progress on my law firm’s web sit, on an issue of law that should be important to many practising lawyers, and I’ve invited comment. I’ve asked for reported decisions cases that might be out there that haven’t surfaced or if people thought I missed something. I haven’t gone out of my way to publicize the existence of the thing but I think it’s widely enough known amongst at those who might have something useful to say. I’ve invited comment by e-mail rather than blog.

    The result? I might have 5 comments from practitioners with whom I didn’t already have a connection of some sort.

    I doubt very much that that’s because the paper answers the issues so definitely that there’s nothing more to be said than the “Rush Limbaughite ditto” – though far be it from me to disagree with those who want to say so.

    The explanation? Maybe it’s the subject mattter. Maybe it’s an aspect of the area in which I’m writing, and the profession for which I’m writing. Academics cooperate. And, now more than ever I gather, share knowledge realizin that that is how knowledge is tested an grows. Practising lawyers? There’s a reason why the “eat what you kill” statement can be left at that and many in the profession will understand.

    And, to be fair, there is tension when one’s aspect of the profession is litigation, and sharing knowledge, even in theory, might be harmful to one’s clients’ needs, presently or in anticipation.

  2. For another recent experiment in publishing, see this weird combo of access and ‘access denied’: link to OA News