The bubble of openness?

Is openness (in the form of open access to knowledge, and the open sharing of distilled knowledge) a contemporary bubble, destined to collapse as universities and industries seek to tighten their budgets? Or is it a wider phenomenon, intrinsically bound to it’s antithesis – the modern industry of publishing?

The industrial revolution in the UK coincided with the growth of a new industry, that of the publisher – which applied the lessons of manufacturing to the production of art. And a sample of legislation across that time demonstrates the increasing emphasis of the rights of the publisher over that of both the reader and author.  

The Copyright Act of 1709 (The Statute of Queen Anne, subtitled “An Act For The Encouragement of Learning…“, afforded the 18th century reader the right to complain about an unfairly high book price to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who could fine booksellers up to £5 for every overly expensive book sold.  

Around a hundred years later, an 1814 Act of Parliament permitted the author (as a protection against unscrupulous publishers!) full control of the exploitation of their work for “the remainder of his or her life“.

However, at the very beginning of the 20th Century the emergence of the model of “net prices” marked the institutionalisation of the right of the publisher to maximum profit – and highlighted the increasing separation between the bookselling, bookbinding and publishing industries. As the 1911 Britannica puts it:

“After much discussion between authors, publishers and booksellers, a new scheme was launched on the 1st of January 1900. Books began to be issued at net prices, from which no bookseller was permitted to make any deduction whatever. This decree was enforced by the refusal of all the publishers included in the [Publisher's] Association to supply books to any bookseller who should dare to infringe it in the case of a book published by any one of them. In other words, a bookseller offending against one publisher was boycotted by all. Thus, what is known as the “net system” depended absolutely upon the close trade union into which the publishers had organized themselves.” 

And in 2009, 300 years after the promulgation of the Statute of Queen Anne, the Digital Britain Report recommended the statutory codification of the rights of publishers to police the “piracy” of their digital assets, via the disconnection of the reader from the network of computers that had become a primary means of obtaining knowledge.

In these 300 years the publisher has gone from a possible impediment to the advancement of learning, under the strictures of no less than an Archbishop, via the establishment of a cartel dedicated to the preservation of an artificially-raised “market value”, to a state-sponsored business model enforcement unit.  Whilst this has happened publishers have divested themselves of every vestige of the “work” of publishing – hiving off printing, bookselling and latterly quality review, to ancillary units with expensive overheads – whilst still maintaining a position as arbiters of “quality” and “trustworthiness”  to the reader. A “published” work is seen as a greater acheivement than any other indicator of intellectual labour, and is used as the primary measure of research effectiveness in academia.

Despite this, those 300 years have seen a growth in literacy and the free exchange of ideas via mass literacy and the extension of school provision (starting with the Factory Act of 1802, the gradual increase in the availability of knowledge via the establishment of public libraries (particularly after the 1850 Public Libraries Act), and now the explosion of freely-available information online. Each of these advances, though largely brought about by the judicious use public funding (lest we forget, the first multi-platform web browser was developed by a student from Leicester Polytechnic on placement at an institute co-funded by European governments), was greatly enhanced by the support of philanthropy and private investment.

So, on the one hand we have a trend supporting the growing access to, and demand for, free knowledge, on the other we have an industry devoted to reducing access to knowledge via the levy of fees. Viewed like this, the current cultural interest in “openness” is not a bubble, rather a continuation of a trend almost as old as the publishing industry that has grown to support the demand for knowledge.

A further interesting factor is the idea of a body of cultural reference. Giulia Forsythe paraphrases Lessig (via Jim Groom) to say:

“I believe this is OUR culture. We have a right to review, remix, and make meaning of the media we grew up with through the tools new media provides.”

Just because the majority of the media of our formative years (music, television, film, literature…) belongs to one or other of the big publishing conglomerates does not mean that it does not also belong to us. Part of the reason such intellectual property is so valuable to publishers is because of the value we (as readers in the widest sense of everything being a text) invest in it.

Which is very 17th century really – the land we are fighting over is in our minds rather than on managed farms, we want to own the means to grow ideas, not crops – but culture, like the earth, is a common treasury for all.

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.



4 thoughts on “The bubble of openness?

  1. The argument I have taken to making lately is that if you want me to cede the existence of “intellectual property” that in return I ask you to cede the existence of the greatest “intellectual property” there is, our collective attention spans, without which all of this are but unread words on a page, unheard trees in the forest.You could write a similar history to the above of people waking up to the effects of the attempts to own culture (and the effects thereon of reproduce-ability) – we may have taken a little longer to wake up, but once roused, these is no stopping us.

  2. I’m not sure I’m arguing for the non-existence of IP, and the second half of your comment (on attention as IP) makes me feel clearer as to why IP is not a commodity and an idea is viral not commercial.I always appreciate your comments on here, they always add so much towards my understanding of what I am grasping towards… hell, it’s like facilitated learning or something…

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