Feeds

Who owns science? Manchester Manifesto can't answer

Some questions are bigger than others

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Intelligent flash storage arrays

Who owns science could be an interesting question: who should own science even more so. Sadly, the latest attempt at asking exactly these is less than interesting in its answers.

The Manchester Manifesto (pdf) is a report from the Great and the Good over how we should change the intellectual property system so as to make it accord with "current best practice". They want to make it easier for poor countries to get hold of new technologies so they suggest they should be given to them.

Unfortunately, it simply repeats the rather dreary usual list of bien pensant talking points and fails entirely to provide either the necessary description of the basic problem or to offer anything much in the way of radical solutions to it.

That basic problem is that science, knowledge, is a public good. No, this is economist's jargon and it does not mean something that's good for the public: nor something provided publicly or something the public would like and not even is it the same as “the public good”. A public good is something which is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Now that Newton's scribbled down his equations about gravity we can't stop certain people from using them and if they do use them it doesn't stop us from using those same equations: non-excludable and non-rivalrous.

Our problem is that such public goods are terribly hard to make money out of. If we can't stop someone else from using them how can we charge for them? And therein lies that problem: if we can't charge for the use then how do we raise the money to find out all this wonderful new knowledge?

The general conclusion is that we should do two things. First, we should subsidise the production of public goods. We do this with such things as basic scientific research, the blue skies thinking. We also do it to an extent with things like education: yes, this might be for the public good, it might be provided by the public to the public but there's also an element of it being one of these “public goods”.

Being a member of a society where all are (near, in some cases) literate and numerate is something generally beneficial and near impossible to charge for. Thus even Adam Smith pointing out that basic education should be taxation funded.

The second is that we should fiddle the system somehow in order to reduce the underprovision of these public goods. An example here would be creativity and invention. A truly free market solution would be like the open source movement: once created anyone can use the code. Excellent and admirable and it's given us some great products (including much of what makes this here internet work) but that's not enough.

So we've this (imperfect) system of patents and copyrights to deliberately throw a spanner into the free market. We create property rights and legally enforce them: the aim is to increase the amount of money that can be made from creation and thus increase the amount of creation we get. It's emphatically not a reward to someone who has done some creating: it's to encourage the next person with a bright idea to do that next piece of creating.

There are of course downsides to this spanner in the works: the creation of artificial monopolies means that some creation is limited by the banning of derivative works. The sweet spot of such a system would be when the amount of new creation encouraged was greater than the derivative work banned: something which it is hard to argue the current system does when, say, Wodehouse's first novel, The Pothunters, released in 1902 will be in copyright until 2045. Patents with their 17 year life (and of course their extremely important corollary, the full release of methods at patent time) might be closer to what a desirable system would have.

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
SECRET U.S. 'SPACE WARPLANE' set to return from SPY MISSION
Robot minishuttle X-37B returns after almost 2 years in orbit
LOHAN crash lands on CNN
Overflies Die Welt en route to lively US news vid
You can crunch it all you like, but the answer is NOT always in the data
Hear that, 'data journalists'? Our analytics prof holds forth
Experts brand LOHAN's squeaky-clean box
Phytosanitary treatment renders Vulture 2 crate fit for export
No sail: NASA spikes Sunjammer
'Solar sail' demonstrator project binned
Carry On Cosmonaut: Willful Child is a poor taste Star Trek parody
Cringeworthy, crude and crass jokes abound in Steven Erikson’s sci-fi debut
Origins of SEXUAL INTERCOURSE fished out of SCOTTISH LAKE
Fossil find proves it first happened 385 million years ago
Human spacecraft dodge COMET CHUNKS pelting off Mars
Odyssey orbiter yet to report, though - comet's trailing trash poses new threat
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Cloud and hybrid-cloud data protection for VMware
Learn how quick and easy it is to configure backups and perform restores for VMware environments.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.