Monday, December 22, 2008

Another bubble ready to burst!

New York Times has an article on how India avoided the credit crisis. In a companion blog, author, Joe Nocera talks of the reactions he got from the Indians he interviewed.

“We used to think that America was the teacher and we were the students,” one businessman told me over breakfast this morning. “We always thought you knew so much more than us. That notion has been shattered.”

Another bubble ready to burst is this flawed notion called "Intellectual Property." I am not saying that all patents, trademarks etc should be banned but that the notion that intellect can be reduced to property is a false one. As a kid, one of the first things I learn is a hymn to Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, which says that:

Wonderful is your gift of knowledge
the more we share, the more it grows
the more we hoard it, the more it diminishes

The current model of trying to "propertize," "privatize" and "commoditize" knowledge comes from a very mercantile, reductionist model of treating knowledge. That may be OK for other countries, which have "intellectual propertized" their knowledge and hold the balance of power in IP Rights, but not for India which has had a long, rich tradition of free knowledge cultures like yoga, ayurveda, mathematics and many other disciplines.

We have not "propertized" these traditions of knowledge and therefore yoga, ayurveda etc can be freely used by all. When we go to use "their" "intellectual property" (allopathic medicine, software and business method patents etc) we are told, "pay up or else...." talk about an unequal exchange!

The contrast is best illustrated by what happened with Bikram Yoga taught by celebrity yoga teacher, Bikram Chowdhury who makes a fortune teaching yoga to Americans. Bikram copyrighted a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated upto 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Note that Yoga is a body of knowledge which has been free from copyrights, patents and "intellectual property" for more than 2000 years. When asked why, Bikram said that he sought legal protection because "it's the American way."

Each society evolves systems that suit its own needs. Most of India's traditions of knowledge spring forth from a spiritual base whereas America's treatment of knowledge has a mercantile bias. This is not to pass a value judgment on either. The problem arises when, in a globalizing society the two systems clash and are unable to harmonize with each other.

Sadly most of our thinking around legal protection of knowledge has been "derivative" in nature, a shoddy cut and paste job from the "mature IP systems" of the West. However, as the Bilski case shows, even these "mature IP systems" are having second thoughts on how they treat knowledge, or in this specific case, software patents. As I have argued in my previous blog entry, "The Practical Problem with Software Patents," the litigation-ridden path followed by US in granting software and business method patents is something we must avoid at all costs.

I could go on and on, but let me just end with one small piece of evidence. As I mentioned earlier, I have grown up in an Indian tradition that believes that knowledge grows by sharing. Does this wisdom hold true in the Internet era?

In September 2001, Linus Torvalds released 10,000 lines of code for building an operating system, under the General Public License. The GPL license encouraged people to take this 10,000 lines of code, modify it and share the resulting improvements with the rest of the world. A recent study by the Linux Foundation estimated that the code base for the Fedora 9 Linux distribution is now 204 million lines of code!

This is one of the finest examples of Collaborative Innovation that has been made possible by the growth of the Internet. With 1.4 billion people connected to the Internet and another 600 million set to join up in the next two years, the Internet is the greatest collaborative platform in the history of mankind. The attempt to "propertize" knowledge in the Internet era is doomed to fail. Instead, we will see knowledge returning to its rightful place in the commons and the open source principles of collaboration, community and the shared ownership of knowledge being applied to thousands of disciplines. As the commercial distributions of Linux demonstrate, even when knowledge lives in the commons, it is possible to build profitable business models around it.

When we look back on our times, we may find that the term, "Intellectual Property" has taken its place along side another archaic term, "Horseless Carriage." Both were attempts to impose metaphors of the past on the future.


sachindabir said...

Hi Venky,
Liked your following terms :

The current model of trying to "propertize," "privatize" and "commoditize" knowledge comes from a very mercantile, reductionist model of treating knowledge.

The Mad Hatter said...


Greed is the issue. If you block competition, there's no need for innovation (a cost center) or need to match competitive pricing.

The North American and European business communities think this is great. At least until it hurts them, and then they scream 'unfair'.

Anonymous said...

Linux was released in 1991 and not 2001.