Course:LIBR559A/Fish, A. (2014)

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Fish, A. (2014). The place of ‘culture’ in the Access to Knowledge movement. Anthropology Today 30(5), 7-10.


In this ethnographic study, Fish demonstrates that different cultures have different concepts of ‘openness,’ some of which are incompatible with the ideology of the Access to Knowledge movement.

The Access to Knowledge (A2K) movement does not clearly distinguish between ‘the commons’ and ‘the public domain’ (8). The public domain is defined by its opposition to the private domain - information is said to be in the public domain if it is not restricted by intellectual property laws (8). In this view, there is only one commons. Within this space, information is disembodied and stripped of its social context (7). The commons is thought to be ‘open’ because there are no access or use restrictions on its content. Fish argues that this property-based definition of ‘openness’ is incompatible with many non-Western worldviews and systems of knowledge transfer.

Yoga is an embodied spiritual practice whose copyright status has recently been disputed in California (8). The yogis involved in this study view yoga as a universally beneficial practice that should be open to all. At the same time, they believe that yoga cannot be divorced from the guru-disciple relationship. They believe that yogic knowledge holds spiritual power and that it has the potential to harm people who are not ready to receive it (7). Therefore, the yogic knowledge ‘commons’ is necessarily stratified and structured around a system of hierarchical social relations. Yogic knowledge is ‘open’ in the sense that it is ‘for everyone,’ but the yogis believe that it would be spiritually dangerous to make this knowledge freely accessible.

Based on these interviews and her experience as an A2K activist, Fish calls for an expanded understanding of ‘openness’ and ‘the commons’. She argues that ‘openness’ has more to do with social engagement than accessibility, and that the commons would be better conceptualized as a set of diverse systems through which information is exchanged within the public domain (10). She suggests that some some forms of knowledge demand a level of “communal caretaking and development” that is best accomplished through stratified social arrangements (8). Finally, she warns that rejecting stratified knowledge transfer relationships on ideological grounds will result in a Eurocentric, imperialist system of property rights.

Open Access publishing is rapidly becoming mainstream, and many institutions are involved with open publishing initiatives. This article offers a non-Western perspective on intellectual property rights that may be useful to librarians, archivists, curators, and others working with culturally sensitive materials.

Keywords: Creative Commons, intellectual property, cultural heritage, anthropology, intangible culture, yoga

Page author: Allison Hill