Monday, September 18, 2006

Reflections on the Ownership of Ideas and the "Knowledge Economy"

Reflections on the Ownership of Ideas and the ‘Knowledge Economy’
American University, like many similar institutions has a “University Club” where faculty, senior staff and advanced graduate students meet over lunch to relax, socialize and share ideas. Part of the club’s culture is several ‘commons tables’ where members who have come to lunch alone can sit down and join in whatever discussions are in progress. Several days ago, I walked up to one of the commons tables where several colleagues and a stranger had just seated themselves. When I asked, with perfunctory politeness, ‘may I join you,’ the stranger reacted with an expression of obvious distress on his face. “I don’t feel comfortable having join us,’ he said, ‘we are here to discuss a business plan, involving proprietary information.’ (If you hear what I discuss, there is some chance you will steal my intellectual property, possibly using it for your own financial gain, was the obvious implication.)

I was angered by this abrupt dismissal, in a cultural context where I was normally accorded respect, but I did understand. As ideas are increasingly codified in reproducible media that can be transmitted by accessible websites, email, podcasts and the like, the ownership of ideas – of intellectual property – has become an increasingly vexing topic.

For a well compensated senior faculty administrator such as myself, “ownership” of ideas is an ethical issue, but not a matter of financial viability. University faculty members, especially, those who teach in elite graduate programs, are professionally obligated to share ideas with students and a wider community. I fully acknowledge that this position is a privileged one, perhaps undeserved.

One should not conclude that faculty members are Simon pure, of course. As director of doctoral studies, I dealt with several instances where faculty members appropriated students’ ideas as their own and took credit for them. But this became a widely known blemish on their professional reputations as well as a learning moment for the students impacted.

This issue comes again to mind in the Balaton Group context because on the fourth day of our meetings we will attempt to grapple with issues, opportunities and challenges posed by new information dissemination modes that have been broadly categorized as ‘the new media.’ Because of my responsibilities for AU’s New Media Center and my contact with undergraduates as ‘dormgrandpop,’ I am much aware of this new genre. I have been urging Steering Committee members to explore its implications. As the Balaton Group has not been known for embracing economists’ worldviews, the title chosen for this day four session was an interesting one, “The Knowledge Economy.”

Views that the Balaton Group should become a more visible presence on the web and in other multimedia venues raise challenging questions for a group in which the ‘free exchange of ideas,’ in an affirming environment grounded – more or less – in shared values has been a strong, but not fully examined norm. What ‘value added’ should be ascribed to the collective ‘knowledge’ that meeting discussions – formal and informal – generate? If that ‘knowledge’ produces significant economic benefits, to whom and by whom should those benefits be distributed. Should the norms that govern such transactions be made explicit, or left implicit, as heretofore?

Our day four discussions should be evocative, challenging and perhaps require some soul searching.


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