PKP Conference Notes: Willinsky on the Intellectual Property of Learning

Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue

This evening, John Willinsky opened the Public Knowledge Project conference at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver. Professor Willinsky’s keynote address, titled “Free? What’s So Special About Learning? The Intellectual Property Argument”, outlined a new way of thinking about the debate over open-access in scholarly publishing. Willinsky called upon the audience to let go of the tired argument about making scholarly publications free. Instead, he asked scholars to focus on defending and upholding the historically distinct legal status of the intellectual property of learning.

John Willinsky
John Willinsky

The crux of Willinsky’s argument was that schoalry publishing is an inherently labour-intensive enterprise and can therefore never truly be described as “free”. But the value of this labour is diminished by its enclosure as private property. The value of scholarly labour can only be realized (and enhanced) through the sharing of the intellectual property of learning.

It is from this point that Willinsky argues that law (in the English tradition) has always recognized this distinct characteristic of academic intellectual property. Universities have since the medieval period in Europe existed in a separate economy from the private market. Willinsky reminded his audience tonight that this tradiation, however, has been upheld unevenly, especially in the domain of publishing. When it comes to intellectual property law in Canada and the United States, according to Willinsky, “we make no distinction between a Justin Timberlake song and a scholarly article.”

From the first formal copyright act in England in 1710 to the present, universities and scholarly labour have been provided with exemptions under the law that set them apart from the private market. Does this mean that academic publications should be made free of cost? That was not really the point of Willinsky’s keynote. What it means is that, according to Willinsky, that labour can only realize its value when it is made as freely available as possible.

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