My favorable review of Lloyd Chambers' Web-based book two weeks back touched upon a concern I had, which was that the material was only available as a temporary subscription, so the reader did not permanently own a copy of it.
Truth is, I understated my concerns, because I didn't want this side-issue to distract from the value of Lloyd's work. It's a great book and Lloyd's a neat guy—you should buy it. Make no mistake about that. So I was a little disingenuous and couched the matter in terms of the cost of the subscription rather than the concept itself. I didn't want to dissuade readers from buying the book, and anyway this isn't about Lloyd or Lloyd's book. There's a bigger issue.
I am very, very disturbed by a thought I've had, which is that leasing knowledge might become the norm. Certainly there are many powerful corporate interests that want to see it go that way. (Do we even need to revisit the Kindle/Amazon 1984 scandal? No we don't—'nough said.) I am not unsympathetic to nor ignorant of the problems and concerns of those who create and disseminate knowledge. Don't you all forget that's a big part of how I make my living. And trust me, even dead trees don't solve those problems; my last book was pirated and torrented before it had even left the printers, and that's not an uncommon occurrence.
My recent books have supplemental web content. If the website goes belly up, either by my choice or by the unwilling intervention of the Fates, that supplemental material will no longer be available. Fortunately, the physical book, which contains the really important stuff, won't suddenly disappear from the reader's shelf.
But, you know what? This isn't a column about how hard it is to make a living as a knowledge creator. This is about the impact that not owning knowledge has on me, as a reader, a consumer, an end-user, and a member of society. As said end-user, I don't care about the problems on the other side. Truly I don't. But I do care deeply about the possibility of living in a world where I can't hang onto the knowledge I've acquired. That's a really bad thing.
It's a bad thing for the very simple reason I mentioned two paragraphs ago. If you're leasing your knowledge from a knowledge provider (how is that for corporate-speak?) you only have that knowledge as long as they are willing and able to provide it. Someday I will stop writing and maintaining a website, either by choice or by death. The same is true for Lloyd or any other entity that is providing important, useful knowledge that the reader doesn't physically own. Sooner or later, the reader will lose it. We all hope it will be later rather than sooner, but none of us know. We can all name important writers in the field of photography who, more or less suddenly and with more or less forewarning, are no longer part of our community. Imagine if all their books and magazine articles suddenly disappeared from your shelf when they stopped being in the business.
By no stretch of the imagination can I imagine this to be a good or even acceptable situation. We've spent half a millennium developing a modern society, infrastructure, and information dissemination technologies to circumvent the problem of, "Only Sarah knew that, and she died last week." In fact, that's an understatement; before that we had copy scribes and oral tradition to ensure that knowledge might plausibly outlive its source.
Leasing knowledge is not an acceptable state of affairs. That is the bottom line that you must not lose sight of. I didn't say the alternatives would necessarily be easy to devise or implement (though they might be); I didn't say it was a simple problem nor that there would be a simple or single solution (though there might be). What I am saying is that leasing knowledge is not a tolerable solution, period, exclamation point, fin.
Figure out something different. This end-user has spoken.
Ctein's regular weekly column now appears on Wednesdays on TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "Right now we're seeing the beginning of a struggle to revise the concept of 'ownership,' and it's led by universities and (of course) lawyers in an effort to monetize the knowledge that comes from research. The argument is, 'We spent a lot of time, effort and money to find this out, why shouldn't we have rights to it?'
"Generally, the answer to that (which is philosophical, rather than legal) is, 'You can't patent or own knowledge, because knowledge in the abstract is a public good, like air; you can patent or own a specific technique or a specific product.'
"I think those two concepts (knowledge and packaging) have to be kept carefully separate, because they drive each other. We (as a community) want the knowledge, and we drive the acquisition of it by allowing people to profit from its packaging.
"Knowledge belongs to everyone. Packaging belongs to a specific entity or person, at least long enough enough to be paid for the cost of the packaging.
"The problem I see with Ctein's argument is that people like Chambers are not really leasing knowledge, they are leasing the box that the knowledge comes in—a book or a website, which they pay to create or maintain. If somebody wants to more-or-less duplicate Lloyd Chamber's reference books, that could be done—he's not hiding or even really creating the knowledge, as far as I can see. Rather, he's organized it into a product. If you don't like it, you have several choices, including acquiring the information on your own and putting into your own box, and even selling that box to others in competition with Chambers; or you could lead a boycott of Chambers' box until he changes his sales strategy; or you could go without, etc.
"But Chambers' activity is rather different than developing knowledge and then attempting to restrict the use of the knowledge itself."