They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Freedom of knowledge

Freedom of knowledge

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

When humankind had memories and became aware of the need to pass those recollections from one person to another in order to keep them alive, knowledge began to be transferred from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth.

At that time knowledge was free. It was the basis of development in any society. It was the sort of information that allowed them to best grow plants, to hunt animals, to heal illnesses and wounds, to build a house or a temple, to understand world order and to remember the deities' mysterious ways.

Human imagination burst into thousands of artistic expressions: from music and songs to dances and tales, and from paintings made of sand and sculptures made of bones to stone carvings and baskets made of wicker.

This knowledge was huge and, due to the sheer impossibility of being remembered by one only person, its custody and survival went on to depended upon particular groups. That way, artists lived, transmitted and perpetuated their skills, farmers passed on theirs and craftsmen did exactly the same with their abilities.

Many scratched a living doing what they knew and made enough money to live on, but with difficulty. A great deal of the knowledge available, however, continued being common property, vital to support group development.

Unfortunately, little by little, things started to change. Information became power and was stored up by dominant classes. Calendar control –which caused crops to succeed– and the knowledge of healthy substances remained in the hands of the few elected, who had to pass difficult tests to show how good they were for such purpose. Something similar happened with writing skills, and so forth. What at the beginning had been a common asset within a horizontal society became a consumer item in a vertical structure. In fact, it might well have been one of the pillars of such pyramidal society.

At present, we continue witnessing continuous buying and selling of strategic knowledge. We are so familiar with it –practical experience during the last twenty or thirty centuries has made us used to living with it– that, sometimes, we are not conscious of the damage caused by such practice. Our doctors, architects, engineers, biologists and the like, must buy the most advanced knowledge –handled by publishers that make huge profits from their activities– in order to become good professionals. Those unable to access such information –without the money that is needed to pay for their training– face an incomplete and impoverished education lacking in the most recent information on the subject. As information professionals, we also take part in those movements: buying a particular database in order to provide information to our users, we agree to this unfair system and, somehow, allow it to go on as it is. It seems as if there were no other possibilities for our libraries to continue working. However, there are a few ones. Open Access archives are a good example.

Current discussion on the subject is focused on authors' property rights. Very few know that those authors hardly make any profit from the money we spend to buy the knowledge they produced. Most part of it remains in the hands of intermediaries, people who neither wrote, nor did any search, made any effort or studied, but who came to know, on the one hand, how to take advantage of the professionals' need to publish and share knowledge, and, on the other, how to exploit the need to read and learn of the rest.

Authors' property rights are mentioned a lot when talking about music, literature and software programs, especially in a modern framework where such cultural property can be downloaded free of charge from the Internet.

Big companies get angry and remind potential buyers of the damage caused to artists, writers, musicians, etc. by "piracy"... However, it is curious to know that those artists –with the exception of the handful of acclaimed ones who have signed "juicy" contracts– hardly make any profit at all. Therefore, we are in a situation that should be known and acknowledged by everybody. It has nothing to do with whatever multinational corporations and their messengers have to say: it refers to knowing what is really happening. Why strategic knowledge is sold when a great part of the world population can't manage to buy it but need it even more than the part that can afford it...? Why do artists "starve to death" while their production companies get bigger and bigger and their products cost more and more...? Where does the money that we invest in strategic knowledge and artistic and cultural property, go to? Does it end up in the hands of those who produce it? Do they make any profit? Are we feeding those members of our society who have decided and chosen to perpetuate our knowledge? Or, on the contrary, are we feeding "lazybones" who, taking advantage of market forces and copyright laws, have been deceiving us for years and continue swelling up at our expense?

On many occasions, from these same pages, we have encouraged the publication of scholar knowledge in Open Access archives, and we have also provided relevant information on the way to do so. Likewise, we have spread many documents and resources closely connected with the subject. We have gone even further and, according with our way of thinking, we have placed our complete work in open and free access archives, as Open Access documents or blogs. Now, we would like to join in advertising the Spanish version of the English original "Dossier Copy/South", elaborated by an international and multidisciplinary group of research. This document considers, from different points of view, the problem of copyright, especially in contexts of the so-called "Third World". It analyzes and goes through the iron laws regarding authors' property, the many interests hidden behind them, the knowledge producers' point of view, hypocrisy that can be found in many of the calls for "piracy" end...

From these pages, we celebrate the publishing of such documents. We acknowledge the right of our modern "culture perpetuators" to make a living from what they do best –for this has been their choice and we need them for the healthy growth of our society–, but we also know that, at present, there are less people earning their living as artists or scientists. Maybe this is the time to identify exploiters and find out alternatives that allow us to get rid of their bad influence and their "invisible" clutches.