Sunday, August 30, 2009

Scientific knowledge and communism

Whilst reading Lawrence Lessig's great book The Future of Ideas - The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, I came across this little gem in the footnotes:

"Communism" in the nontechnical and extended sense of common ownership of goods, is a second integral element of the scientific ethos. The substantive findings of science are a product of social collaboration and are assigned to the community. They constitute a common heritage in which the equity of the individual producer is severely limited. An eponymous law or theory does not enter into the exclusive possession of the discoverer and his heirs, nor do the mores bestow upon them special rights of use and disposition. Property rights in science are whittled down to a bare minimum by the rationale of the scientific ethic. Scientists' claims to "their" intellectual "property" are limited to those of recognition and esteem which, if the institution functions with a modicum of efficiency, are roughly commensurate with the significance of the increments brought to the common fund of knowledge. Eponymy - for example, the Copernican system, Boyle's law - is thus at once a mnemonic and a commemorative device.
Robert K. Merton
On Social Structure and Science

The issue of copyright is something that comes up again and again - today for instance in The Observer's article on Google's plan for a digital library.
I think socialists should oppose the commodification of knowledge and culture as an obstacle to progress and creativity.
"At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters."
Karl Marx, Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Isn't the growing extension of copyright law a case of "the forms of development of the productive forces turning into fetters"?

1 comment:

redbedhead said...

Copyright is a complicated thing. I'm a writer and while I'm all for the free distribution of ideas and knowledge - I'd be very upset if a studio or producer took the script I'd been working on for two months and turned it into a film without paying me. Copyright, for writers - and actors, et al - is a key part of making a living. For big corporations, it is a key part of maintaining a monopoly on knowledge.