The Rise of the Access to Knowledge Movement: An Interview with Vera Franz

Vera Franz heads the Information Policy and Intellectual Property Reform initiatives at the Open Society Information Program. She has been deeply involved in the launch and development of the global access to knowledge (A2K) movement, and is also working to strengthen civil society advocacy for the protection of human rights online.

She contributed two chapters to Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property, a book which was supported by the Information Program and published by Zone Books/MIT Press. This week, the book’s editors, Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski, are holding a “virtual party” for the book, inviting readers to come together and discuss the issues it raises.

What is the A2K movement, and what issues do its members seek to address?

The access to knowledge (A2K) movement first came together in 2004 to respond to a crisis, namely the increasing imbalance between privatized knowledge (that which is controlled by the intellectual property rights holder) and the knowledge commons (that which is "owned" by the public). This crisis had been precipitated by the advancement by some Northern governments of an economic agenda which has consistently pushed for stronger and broader intellectual property (IP) protection.

For example, the duration of copyright protection has dramatically increased, and as a result our public domain is today only half as big as it would be if we returned to the copyright regime of 80 years ago. Also, why do almost 120 countries not yet have a fair use provision for the blind and visually impaired and hence deny this group access to the world’s knowledge?

The A2K movement set out to address these problems, and people were inspired because intellectual property rights are an integral part of our lives—they affect everything from the availability and price of textbooks, scientific journals, software and medicines to innovation in different fields of technology, as well as free communication on the Internet. Ultimately, intellectual property rights shape the economic, social and political development of every open society and it’s too important to leave the decisions about the form of our IP rules to a few vested interests.

What are some of the most notable accomplishments of the A2K movement so far?

The biggest accomplishment is that it managed to turn a seemingly technocratic issue—copyright and patents—into a political one that people from all walks of life started to care deeply about. Also, the movement has shifted the terms of the debate: away from "more IP is better" to "sometimes less is more."  The impact of the movement can be best understood by taking a closer look at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), currently the main multilateral policy maker in this space.

Ten years ago, WIPO was a closed agency largely controlled by a lobby advocating for ever more IP protection. Today, both rhetoric and norm-setting have changed. Thanks to relentless advocacy by civil society, we have a Development Agenda that is seeking to address the concerns of developing countries. And governments are negotiating a Treaty for the Visually Impaired that would enhance access to copyrighted materials for the visually impaired around the world.

What major obstacles does the movement face at this moment?

The biggest challenge is the tactic of "forum shifting," where governments, pushed by the IP industry, are relocating negotiations of international law from open into what are often secret forums. A case in point is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), where negotiators and participating lobbyists had to sign nondisclosure agreements. This is hardly a stellar example of transparent and democratic policy making, and it makes it very difficult for the movement to have an impact and make its voice heard.

Another challenge is the ever more aggressive enforcement agenda. Proposals here include pervasive surveillance of everybody’s internet traffic coupled with the threat of disconnection of alleged copyright infringers from the internet—such measures violate basic standards of due process, free expression and privacy. In fact, the A2K struggle has become a struggle for the protection of our human rights online. These aggressive enforcement proposals are not the right way to address infringement. As they are often ineffective, we need to instead think more creatively about business models that combine profit with openness, but also finally arrange for a global licensing regime that will allow people to access works legally and hence ensure compensation for creators.

Given the movement's diversity and its wide variety of approaches, are there any tensions within the movement?

I guess it’s easier to agree on proposals that need to be defeated than agree on solutions to proactively advocate for. That is certainly one challenge that everybody in this movement recognizes, but also works to overcome.

And in the early days, the movement was, at least by some, perceived as a Northern movement. Over the course of the past years however a growing number of Southern participants have turned A2K into something that made sense for them.

Also, there are important forces in the A2K movement that question the centrality of law as such. Reality is shaped by other forces than the law, they point out. They take social practice as the starting and end point and argue that, in times of great technological progress, it might well be that we will improve the condition of humanity more if guided by social practice rather than by the existing law.

For example, if the world is looked at through the lens of WIPO, “piracy” is classified as an “illegal activity” that needs to be extinguished at all cost. But looking at matters through the lens of human development and economic progress, for example in developing countries, one might not always come to the same conclusion. Further, some important businesses would never have developed by always adhering to the narrowest interpretation of the current legal framework.

What’s your professional background, and what drew you to working in this field?

I’m a political scientist, and early on I was interested in the power of digital networks and how they are reshaping our society, the way they make possible things that weren’t possible before—mass collaborative efforts like Wikipedia, for example.

When I joined the Open Society Foundations almost ten years ago, I was lucky to be able to work on exactly these questions. The internet is the biggest copying machine ever invented, and as one of the purposes of copyright is to control the right to make copies, anyone could see that we were heading towards a major conflict. So in 2003 we launched the Intellectual Property Reform initiative, with the idea of protecting what was good about the internet, and the knowledge commons more generally, as well as protecting important fundamental rights such as free speech and privacy in what was obviously becoming a very contested space.

Tell us about the new book Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property.

This book is a major contribution to the A2K movement. I think it’s so important because the movement as I mentioned is very eclectic and diverse. There is no secretariat or governance per se: the movement is disorganized in the best sense of the word. So I think this book really helps the movement to continue to shape its identity. It also, very importantly, draws attention to some of the questions we have not yet solved. The two editors who produced it have done a stellar job in making the issues accessible and, hopefully, sparking the interest of people, who to date were not interested in copyright and patents, to join in and make a contribution.

How can others get involved in the A2K movement?

Well, why not create or edit a Wikipedia entry? Or license your work under Creative Commons? You can also join one of the many campaigns, such as the Brazilian campaign for fair copyright or sign the Open Rights Group petition against a proposal to unfairly disconnect people from the internet.

But you can also get more deeply involved and urge your elected representatives to support the Treaty for the Visually Impaired negotiated at WIPO. And you can read the book and join this week’s live conversation. The editors of this book are organizing a virtual book party and we hope you will join and feel inspired!

An electronic copy of Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property has been made available for free download under a specially crafted Creative Commons license which additionally allows for translations. Other recent reports and publications of interest to those wishing to learn more about the A2K movement include: Access to Knowledge for Consumers, September 2010, and Winning the Web, May 2009.


The most interesting point in this discussion is one neglected by the author, namely how do you suppose to combine openness with profit for businesses? How do you ensure compensation for creators and allow people to access works legally? Without answers to these essential questions, the discussion above resonates of naive idealism.

An interesting example and a part answer to Lena's question is the experience of the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. A few years ago they decided to make all their publications available for free download, while still selling hard copies. They found that this dramatically increased their reach and influence but also increased their revenue. More people read their books and many of those wanted the hard copies and so paid for them.

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