The Future of Knowledge
Address to the Workshop "Legal Challenges in a Comparative Perspective", June 17, 2004
Jürgen Renn, MPIWG
Also on behalf of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science I would like to extend you a warm welcome to this workshop on "Legal Challenges of Open Access in a Comparative Perspective."
Together with other institutes of the Max Planck Society, our institute has been engaged in fostering and formulating an open access policy for the society and beyond, an effort that has contributed, so I hope, to the success of the Berlin Declaration and that will contribute to the eventual success of the Open Access cause.
But why does an institute for the history of science have a stake in this struggle and what can its contribution really be?
Let me try to answer this question by commenting on the present situation from the perspective of a historian of science, first from a practical and then from a theoretical point of view. I will conclude my opening remarks with some open questions concerning the future of knowledge.
Historical Perspective - practical
What the practical perspective of a historian of science on the present Internet revolution is may become clear when looking at the Berlin Declaration which requests open access not only for scientific knowledge but also for cultural heritage, including the historical sources of scientific knowledge.
Since the foundation of our Institute we have engaged, along with partners throughout the world, in making such historical sources of scientific knowledge freely available with the help of electronic media. These sources provide the empirical basis for our work; for scholars of cultural history they correspond to the experimental data of the natural scientists.
Here you see for instance a huge collection of historical works on mechanics relevant to our study of the longterm development of mechanical knowledge from antiquity to the modern era.
Each of these sources is available as a digital facsimile and as a transcribed text.
Each of the words in the transcribed Latin text is linked to a dictionary, in this case actually to two Latin-English dictionaries, one from the period, one modern.
We believe that such efforts to make cultural heritage freely available on the Internet are not only relevant to specialists but may actually constitute an important contribution to turning the Internet from a medium of advertisment and garbage information into a global representation of human knowledge.
The role of cultural heritage as a reference for shaping our identity and that of the societies we are living in is indeed endangered if it fails to assume an important place in the medium of the future.
Cultural heritage must be freely available not only for the sake of cultural historians but for the sake of students and teachers, of politicians and the public at large.
To make this possible was once the mission of our museums, archives, libraries, and art collections.
It should now be the mission of initiatives (in this case the "European Cultural Heritage Online" initiative) to make cultural heritage available on the Web.
But the present social architecture of the Web, characterized by an unholy alliance of proprietory interests of the media magnats and the treasure house mentality of the holders of cultural heritage, has so far prevented an efficient and substantial transfer of the sources of cultural heritage from the old medium into the new one.
This unholy alliance of profit and treasure house mentality has, on the contrary, erected artificial barriers and created new obstacles to the accessibility of cultural heritage on the Web.
It is in order to change this situation that many institutions throughout Europe have launched a joint initiative aiming at the creation of an open-access infrastructure for cultural heritage allowing every holder of cultural heritage to make their sources easily available on the Web in a way that allows for their integration with other sources.
What you see here are some of the results of this European Cultural Heritage Initiative, whose pilot phase was supported by the European Commission.
Collections of sources of cultural heritage that we hope will become seed collections for the further accumulation of cultural content are here arranged according to a timeline extending from 3000 B.C. to the Present, from earliest testimonies of human writing via sources related to Renaissance engineering to those documenting the relativity revolution. All of them are freely available and many of them are embedded in the language technology we have briefly illustrated. A few examples you will have occasion to see in the course of my further remarks.
Historical Perspective - theoretical
Let me now come to my theoretical remark as a historian of science.
Naturally, we are looking at the present situation from a larger historical perspective, recognizing its structural similarity with the historical turnover engendered by the invention of printing.
The most striking aspects of this similarity is not so much the parallelism of technical innovations radically changing the conditions for disseminating knowledge but rather the interactions between such technical innovations and what one might call the cultural formation of knowledge.
This cultural formation is, in any case, not limited to the conditions for disseminating knowledge but includes those for its production and, I would even claim, those for its cognitive organization.
Our historical studies have indeed shown us that there exist close relations between the media for the external representation of knowledge, such as writing, print, telecommunication, or the World Wide Web, and the cognitive organization of knowledge.
It would be very helpful if I had the time to illustrate this close relation for the example of the earliest documents of human writing, about 70 0000 of which are now freely available on the Web due to an international digital library initiative, the "Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative", associated with the ECHO initiative.
It could thus be shown that the early forms of mathematical thinking were closely related to the way writing was used in the context of the administrative apparatus of the Babylonian city states and empires.
But it may be more appropriate to turn to the time of Galileo and Leibniz, also represented by seed collections in our open access platform.
It seems hardly an accident that the Scientific Revolution of the Early Modern Period took place in close historical neighborhood to the Printing Revolution.
The Scientific Revolution was, to a large extent, made possible by a novel integration of practical and theoretical knowledge.
The practical knowledge was that of the Renaissance workshops such as that associated with Brunelleschi's the building of the Cupola for the Florentine Cathedral, and the theoretical knowledge was that accumulated in a millenary scholarly tradition going back to antiquity.
This integration of practical and theoretical, in turn, was only possible because knowledge could now travel beyond the traditional social barriers separating practical from theoretical knowledge, with the help of the new channels of communication opened up by the medium of printing.
In this way, the confinement of knowledge to closed social circuits as they were represented by medieval guilds was definitely broken with the consequence that entirely new forms of knowledge representation could emerge.
Among them are the scientific journals which, for a long time, provided the backbone for scientific progress articulating and channeling the ever greater specialization of science at the origin of the knowledge explosion it gave rise to.
Scientific journals have played such an important role in the history of science of the last two centuries that they are largely taken as God given instead as being taken for what they actually are: a historically specific form of knowledge representation related to an equally historically specific medium of dissemination.
Such historical observations relations make it at least conceivable that a revolution of the media for representing and communicating knowledge has the potential of a scientific revolution with fargoing consequences also for technological innovations.
From a historical perspective, it is against the danger of blocking this potential that the open-access movement is and must be directed.
The future of knowledge
Let me now come to the Legal challenges of open access. I take the supplement "in comparative perspective" not only as referring to national comparisons but also as referring to a comparison between science and culture, and, more importantly, between knowledge and ideas.
The Creative Commons project is about opening and securing spaces for creativity in science, art and other fields. It could make a decisive difference in maintaining or recovering the net as an environment for innovators, for the future of ideas, to quote Lawrence Lessig.
Yesterday, I have already mentioned that the Creative Commons Project is presently under serious consideration as the basis for a new way of dealing with authors' rights within the Max Planck Society and within the global discussion about open access fostered by the Berlin Declaration.
But is it really sufficient or even helpful to make sure that the net is an appropriate environment for an open knowledge society?
In which sense is knowledge different from ideas?
To begin with a clarification: By knowledge I not only refer to scientific knowledge but to any kind of knowledge relevant not just to an individual but to society at large, whether newly created or transmitted over the generations.
Knowledge, in its essence, is shared knowledge, it is the essential intellectual ressource on which human livelyhood and human cultural identity depends and hence represents a common good.
Of course, knowledge requires material representations, be they books, works of art, or Internet sites.
But while these material representations may be possessed by individuals or institutions, the knowledge they embody remains shared knowledge.
Whether knowledge in this sense is created by single individuals or by groups, the conditions for its production are typically part of a societal if not public endeavor.
While temporary privileged access to knowledge may be compatible with its shared nature when private investments are involved, this is not the case when the production or preservation of knowledge is an essentially public enterprise funded with public money.
What conclusions may we draw from such a concept of shared knowledge as it applies to most of the scientific knowledge of the past as well as to most of the knowledge embodied in the cultural artefacts held in museums, archives, and libraries?
The first, surprising conclusion, is that, if one does not focus on ideas but on knowledge, of which ideas are just the atomistic aspect, the legal challenges of open access are not only related to copyright restrictions but also to the implications and interpretations of property rights.
As a matter of fact, our problems in making available the bulk of the sources constituting our cultural heritage - comprising our scientific heritage are not related to any copyrights held by the Babylonian scribes or their heirs, or by Galileo and Leibniz, or Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Our main legal problems rather result from the interpretation by individuals and institutions of the rights they infer from their property of the material representations of shared knowledge.
Which rights do they actually have and under which obligations are they, given that have been granted their role as proprietors of the material representations of cultural heritage by the public which is funding them?
Are these material representations not a common good with all the implications following from this qualification, including the obligation to make digital representations freely available on the Internet?
Does a public institution such as a museum really have the right to block the access to a digital representation of, say an Archimedes manuscript, given that its main function is to hold such material for purposes of public interest?
Such reticence is, in any case, common practice among empoverished public institutions which hope to exploit the Internet as a new source of revenue, helping them to maintain what they conceive as their principal responsibility of public service. Unfortunately, open access is not widely recognized as being part of that public responsibility.
This consideration brings me to a second conclusion based on the notion of shared knowledge.
Shared knowledge is obviously neither in science nor in culture free knowledge. Its production and dissemination continue to represent costly endeavors, mostly funded, at least in Europe, by the public
My second conclusion therefore is that the legal challenges of open access can only successfully be addressed in the context of solving the economic challenges at the same time.
Without developing a powerful open-access infrastructure that will not come for free, it will simply be impossible to realize the implications of the open-access vision and thus to fulfill the obligation which, in my view, all institutions concerned with shared knowledge have.
As you can see from the examples shown in the beginning, such an open-access infrastructure is already emerging at many places.
But while scientific institutions such as the Max Planck Society have played a pioneering role in fostering its creation, the task is much too challenging for being undertaken in any other way than by a joint public effort.
Establishing such an infrastruction would clearly be a glorious achievement on any agenda of innovation, and I am particularly glad about the initiatives undertaken by German federal and regional governments in this direction.
I am concerned, however, that, while these initiatives may address the burning problems of present science, they may tend drop the complicated problems of cultural heritage as an unnecessary burden, with all the negative implications I have tried to highlight in the beginning.
What options do we have for actions in this regard?
Do we need a legal reform, granting greater weight to common goods such as shared knowledge or can already existing legal implications of common goods be brought out more eficciently by appropriate jurisdiction?
Or do we have to continue to rely merely on the loopholes, on moral appeals, and on the good will we occassionally encounter when trying to keep cultural heritage present in an Internet Society?
Or can perhaps Creative Commons provide us with a third way?
Let me conclude my opening remarks by developing this latter perspective into a proposal that may at least solve some of our problems, asking you to please pardon a layman for making such proposals which have their roots in our daily struggles for a significant Web of Culture and Science, but may sound naive to the ears of legal specialists.
Whatever the rights of the owners of material representations of a work of cultural heritage may actually be, they could choose a licence by which they let others copy, distribute, display, and perform the work - and derivative works based on it.
They could also chose a licence by which they let others copy, distribute, display, and perform the work - and derivative works based on it - but only if appropriate credit is given or of commerical purposes are excluded.
I see at least one disadvantage and one advantage to this proposal.
The disadvantage is that the introduction of Cultural commons licences may suggest to institutions that they have rights which they actually do not possess, for instance the right of commercial exploitation of cultural heritage.
If it is possible to renounce a right, it would, of course, be equally possible to exploit it.
In a word, a Cultural commons licence might help to wake up the few dogs which are still sleeping. That is its disadvantage.
The main advantage of a Cultural commons licence would be to encourage examples of good practice. It may serve to distinguish instititutions volunteering to go ahead in supporting the open access vision in a way we know from quality labels for products. If this distinction is, furthermore, honoured by additional public support for the effort to make cultural heritage freely available, there would be a further attraction to follow such examples of good practice. Finally, a Cultural commons licence would contribute to legal security within a controversial environment.
This is definetely a point where a layman has to stop speculating. As practitioners we would welcome any solutión helping us to realize the vision of an open Web for Culture and Science.