A human rights perspective on freedom to access knowledge

I’m excited to be a part of this symposium discussing Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski’s important new collection, Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property. The collection provides us with a foundation for considering the past, present, and future of A2K—its accomplishments, tensions, and future directions. I was particularly struck by the way in which the book’s conceptual framing of A2K issues and its discussion of advocacy strategies informed one another. This synergy was most evident for me in one of the questions Kapczynski poses in the opening chapter: “What is the nature of the freedom that A2K demands?” This question resonates for me as a human rights advocate in two important ways.

First, this question asks whether A2K should be primarily concerned with freedom from intellectual property restrictions, or something more. As Dileepa Witharana and Harini Amarasuriya note in discussing A2K strategies the Sri Lankan context, intellectual property is only one of the many barriers that restrict access to knowledge, and in many places, it may not even be one of the most significant. Coming to this discussion from human rights activism, I’ve felt that the focus on intellectual property policy—while unequivocally an important and critical issue—has nonetheless seemed to limit the transformative potential of “access to knowledge” as a lens through which to view a variety of problems. Consultations with health practitioners around the world conducted by the organization Health Information for All by 2015, for example, indicate that one of the most important problems for their members practicing in low-resource settings is not copyright restrictions on articles in medical journals, but rather the absence of reliable and good quality health reference and learning materials. Original research articles typically discuss treatments and procedures not relevant to the problems that practitioners in low-resource settings encounter in their daily work. These treatments also often require high-technology settings for their application and are written in languages and styles that are often inaccessible.

Access to knowledge could be a tremendously powerful lens for addressing this problem, focusing us on the importance of health information in ensuring good health and challenging us to think about how to get appropriate, adequate, and reliable information both to health professionals and to the individual family members who most often provide first-line medical care. But where is the limit? Should A2K also be concerned about training paraprofessional health workers to provide health information to rural communities? With ensuring that health workers are paid well enough that they are able to remain in the communities where they are most needed? (See the work of the Global Health Workforce Alliance on efforts to address the global health worker crisis.) Without the organizing focus of intellectual property rules, is there enough content to give direction to the movement? Or does it run the risk of being stretched too thin?

This leads to the second issue Kapczynski’s question about freedom raises for me. Is the concept of “freedom” robust enough to provide the movement with direction in the areas beyond intellectual property policy? The idea of “freedom” needs content. What are the purposes that this freedom is to serve? Freedom from want? From fear? As Heeseob Nam asks in a roundtable on strategies, “Why do we need access to knowledge? For innovation or culture? For empowerment? Or for ensuring human rights?”

On the one hand, perhaps it is enough for A2K to be focused on freedom to access knowledge, bringing attention to the way in which knowledge affects a variety of different values without choosing between them. As Hervé Le Crosnier observes in his contribution to this symposium, one of the major contributions of the A2K movement has been “to show other social movements how important it is to maintain the free sharing of ‘intellectual’ information.” On the other hand, common commitments to the kinds of things that freedom should protect seems to facilitate activism. One of the reasons the medicines campaign was so successful in capturing the popular imagination seems to have been its ability to connect access to knowledge to the protection of human health and life. The absence of agreement on the values that freedom should protect, in turn, appears to have contributed to the “cracks and fissures” that Susan Sell has identified as impeding organizing efforts in the areas of agriculture and traditional knowledge.

In order to continue building coalitions and tackling some of the tradeoffs involved in conflicts between different values and priorities—to develop the “unity” that Sell calls for, or the “integrated common agenda” Krikorian discusses—those working on A2K issues will need to continue discussing the values that freedom should serve and the common minimum commitments that bind them together. Perhaps one of those commitments is the capacity to produce knowledge, as Kapczynski suggests, and perhaps there are more. The purpose of such a discussion would not necessarily be to reach agreement, but to continue engaging in a process of self-definition that will allow the extraordinary energy that drives the A2K movement to evolve to address new challenges and build new coalitions.

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1 Response

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Nice post.