Eben Moglen: Knowledge cannot and should not be owned. The notion that it can, condemns certain segments of society to extinction

The most serious problems that confront humanity are about human beings and their intelligence, which oft goes agley, as Robert Burns told us, no matter how good the plans may be. And the most serious tool that we have to confront the problems made by human intelligence, is human intelligence. We, collectively, are in the business of maximizing humanity’s ability to use its intelligence to make life better for people, and in doing that, the gravest difficulty that we confront is that all societies since the beginning of human sociality have thrown away most of the brains they had.

Let’s begin with a simple question. How many of the Einsteins that ever existed were allowed to learn physics?

One. Or two, maybe. And that’s the nature of the problem on which we all work, one way or another, in the service that we attempt to perform for humankind.

The primary difficulty of the 20th century was that it discovered extraordinarily efficient ways for people to work in regimented forms, but it made very little progress over where the 19th century left us with respect to the ability to educate every human mind. Among the reasons that 20th century civilization made such little progress – we do, you know, we still throw away almost all the brains – the reason we made such little progress is largely that we treated knowledge as a thing that could be owned, and therefore need be purchased. And no matter what we did to attempt to equalize ability to purchase, we didn’t equalize very much, and most of the children in the world are deprived of the real opportunity to learn – they can’t afford to.

The central problems of the human race therefore depend upon easing the ability of brains to feed – we must stop starving the intellect that gets us out of the messes we think our way into.

To do that, then, we begin, at the end of the 20th century, to imagine reversing the long and complicated relationship between the human race and the idea that knowledge is something that you own. We reverse that course by beginning, once again, to treat – unsparingly and without any degree of forgiveness for the alternative – we begin to treat knowledge as a thing that must be shared in order to be valuable.

Of course, we continue to exist in a world in which it is considered to be acceptable to treat knowledge as a thing that can be owned. The consequence is that there are people who will die because the knowledge of the molecule that will help them not to die is owned knowledge, and someone has secured, for a substantial portion of a human lifetime, the exclusive right to deploy that knowledge, which raises its price, decreases its availability, and condemns some people to extinction.

These are only some of the consequences of the belief that knowledge is a thing that can be owned. And we live now, all of us, and indeed much of the world – soon all of the world – we live in the midst of technology which makes it unnecessary even to discuss the conception of the ownership of knowledge, because it is possible, efficiently, to share.

In a world where everything’s a bitstream, where everything has zero marginal cost, where if you have one copy, you can make a billion copies at no additional expense, the ownership of knowledge is a moral problem. If we could feed everybody by cooking one breakfast and pressing a button, what would the case be, what would the argument be, for charging people more for food than everyone could pay? Of course, we can’t just cook one breakfast and press a button, but we can make one operating system and press a button. We can make a database and press a button. We can make a novel, a film, a poem, a symphony, a dance, or a design for survivable low cost constructible housing, and press a button.

In other words, in the world that we have made, – the digital world – we have escaped one of the principal reasons that we threw away all the brains we threw away. And – as many of you, in the work you do, are acutely conscious – we have as many children with us now as there were human beings in the generations that preceded our own. All of them, put together. That means we are either about to throw away as many human brains as have ever been thrown away in the whole history of the human race, or we’re about to reverse the flow at the moment where it will do the most good.

This is the context within which we have begun to use technology ourselves in our own lives in a slightly different way. The more we use the technology in our own lives in a slightly different way, the more we bias our activity towards sharing rather than owning, – or even, the more we bias our activity towards sharing rather than doing business with those who claim to own – the more we are establishing the fundamental principle by which we will make a kind of social justice that will attack one of the root causes of human misery: the throwing away of all those brains that wanted to learn and couldn’t.

  • Eben Moglen

09NTC plenary: Eben Moglen