11 May 2007

Open source learning

Are open source and open access commensurate with the protection of intellectual property?

The previous post on the memetics of innovation alludes to the cross-pollination of ideas that can come with the conflation of ideas that cross boundaries. Collaborating to compete picks up on recent press on transparency and access to corporate trade secrets. The current running through both these issues is this: the creative tension arising from making ideas freely available and protecting intellectual property is useful for understanding and promoting applied research.

Open source learning, which I have elsewhere described as “the theory of knowledge sharing and production in both formal and informal settings . . . typifies how the free availability of information and the sharing of knowledge can benefit communities that cooperate towards common goals.” Innovation and invention do not occur in a vacuum, but rather happen in fits and starts, with each idea building on the one preceding. The principles of open source and open access offer us a way to release information (products, services) into public discussion in order to advance our collective understanding, and so development (be this technical or social). Memes and viral advertising are examples of how things get picked up; mashups using the Google maps API are one example of how the release of proprietary systems (with “some rights reserved”) can spur innovation while retaining some rights to intellectual property.

The lone inventor working in his basement, waiting to reveal his precious invention to the world, will emerge to find that this world has passed him by. Putting ideas into circulation gives them currency. We can retain rights to our intellectual property and build systems (in this sense technical) that offer alternative business models for the commercialization of applied research. And releasing our ideas lets us ensure that others don’t take credit for them; we’ve all heard of cases where ideas are stolen or grafted onto someone else’s project. This form of extreme plagiarism is rampant (perhaps nowhere more so than in academe).

In the headlong rush to the next big idea, the propensity to wall off ideas to protect their proprietary value stifles innovation. This is not to say that there should be no intellectual property protection; far from it. We publish results of our studies and protect trade secrets in order to ensure that our intellectual property accrues to us. This is as it should be. The trick is in finding a balance between the advance of knowledge and our right to protect our intellectual property from misuse and misappropriation.

No comments: