The hot potato of public access in the face of commercialisation

  “A Better Pencil” – Inside Higher Ed

An article about the changes both real and feared, that the electronic age might have on the way we communicate.  It is based around an interview with the writer of a book on the subject, Dennis Baron.

The interview touched on the subject of the Google Books project.
Baron said:

“First, I think it’s great to digitize as much nondigital text as possible… What I don’t like is that Google is poised to monopolize text. No one entity should have that kind of power over the word…  The sorts of operations that Google…represent are important to how we use computers, and they make a vital contribution to our economy. But while they have been important in shaping our literacy practices, they should not get to dictate them.”

This debate is fascinating.  A similar argument surrounds the commercialisation of publicly funded research in agriculture and there is a danger that we oversimplify the debate.  There is not a YES/NO answer to this issue, and the dynamics are intricate.  Free doesn’t constitute uptake and use,  but private raises another new set of considerations regarding control.  The argument for continued adequate public funding of research for sustainable agriculture to ensure food availability and empower farmers must be made in a way that is clear to every government.  Otherwise will we encourage a Google®-type organisation to hold rights for all improved seed in the future?

In fact Baron goes on to say:

“Not only does Google intend to profit from this kind of control (it answers to its stockholders, not to the public), it would have the power to manipulate the text under its control, deciding who can and cannot see it, what can be displayed, what can be erased.”

And that is an important point.  If rights are signed over completely then with them go all safeguards.  But we need to find a way to strike a balance between allowing commercialisation (where distribution of a product might not otherwise happen),  whilst not loosing sight of the ethos of public goods.  And finding that balance is not easy…. 

As guardians of public goods we have a huge responsibility to make those goods accessible.  We cannot be academically against initiatives like Google Books without actively addressing why it is there is a demand for this private service.  Public goods are doing no good at all if they sit hidden in a closed repository, or if they are transferred to 3rd parties without an obligation to disseminate results to those who need them.

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