On “An Environmentalism for Information,” by James Boyle

On “An Environmentalism for Information,” by James Boyle

In “An Environmentalism for Information,” a chapter in The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (2008), James Boyle suggests that the intellectual property and OA movement needs to follow the lead of the environmentalism movement. Indeed, this may appear to be a tenuous or questionable analogy at first glance. Boyle is well aware of the skepticism that could be leveraged at such a claim, however, and he goes on to argue his position convincingly. Environmentalism, Boyle explains, was not taken seriously as a movement until there was a large, coordinated effort that cut across public and individual interests, included many different groups and people with diverse priorities, and was evidence-based. Similarly, in order for the world to get over its “openness aversion” (231) we need to tackle the four problems that Boyle lists: 1) intellectual property rules are generally obscure and uninteresting to most people; 2) there is a gap in understanding regarding the common interest that diverse, scattered communities hold in intellectual property;  3) there are competing, self-interested factions at play, who exist in an ideology of maximalism; 4) the arguments around intellectual property are imbalanced, and lack careful thought and empirical evidence. To solve these issues, Boyle recommends:

We need a political debate about intellectual property that recognizes […] trade-offs; that does not impose simplistic, one-sided solutions; that looks to evidence. We need to understand the delicate and subtle balance between property and the opposite of property, the role of rights,  but also of the public domain and the commons. (238)

By drawing parallels between environmentalism and the public domain as social issues, Boyle issues a call to arms, and pledges for a movement — a coordinated, purpose-driven initiative that aims to affect change on local, national, and international levels, and that is targeted at policy.

Although it is clear which side Boyle is on, he does frame his argument within the larger context of informed, democratic debate, as he recognizes the various actors involved in the conversation around the public domain. The most interesting points of this chapter, for me at least, are when Boyle tips his hand, as in the following cut-and-dry statement on his ideal intellectual property rule:

A simple rule that required the eventual free publication online of all government-funded health research, under open licenses, rather than its sequestration behind the paywalls of commercial journals, could help fuel remarkable innovations in scientific synthesis and computer-aided research while giving citizens access to the research for which they have already paid. (246)

(Hear, hear!)

Work cited

Boyle, James. 2008. “An Environmentalism for Information.” The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven and London: Yale UP. 230-48.

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