A thousand-and-one ideas (almost) … on sharing knowledge

When I last ran into Heather Ford, the setting was almost
Paradise. But with a twist. It was scenic part of Africa,
where her roommate encountered a hotel-room theft and some
participants (of AfricaSource2) got badly sick after swimming
in the amazingly beautiful Lake Victoria and battling unseen
mosquitoes. Heather handed across a book which throws up a
thousand-and-one fascinating ideas, and many mixed feelings,
as did my first encounter with Africa.

‘The African Digital Commons: A Participant’s Guide 2005’ is
co-authored by Heather and Chris Armstrong. This 78-page book
comes from the Link Centre at Johannesburg’s Wits University,
and is the “collaborative output” of Commons-sense Project
that’s online at http://www.commons-sense.org

Heather explains it thus, in a brief but succinct foreword:
“One of the goals of the Commons-sense Project is to conduct
research that helps equip African activists and
decision-makers with the information they need to develop
cutting-edge, relevant intellectual property policies and

So, they “decided to begin with a map — a map that hopefully
presents a broad picture of how far we’ve already come in
Africa towards the goal of achieving a ‘digital information
commons’, as well as providing some sense of how to grow it

And, like most road-maps, there’s much much more on the
ground than you first thought, when you look at it closely.

This slim book has four different sections, plus references
and biographies. It’s the third and fourth — that cover a
little under half of the book — that are the most
interesting. Section 3 deals with ‘African players,
processes, issues’ while the fourth focuses on a ‘Directory
of African Projects’.

You almost run into an alphabet soup. OAPI, ARIPO, UNECA,
NEPAD, TK, FTA, TRIPS Plus, ccSA, FOSS, IPR, DRM, and more.
But behind these abbreviations are a whole lot of the “good
guys” and the “bad guys”. Some who want to share knowledge,
and others who want to use it as a tool to gain every dollar,
rand and shilling of profit out of it.

In the three-page introduction, one gets a good grip of the
issue. Even if this is a rather complex subject, with a whole
lot of potential to get TRIPped over.

It says, “As the writings of Lawrence Lessig and others
cogently argue, the digital revolution is a decidedly
double-edged phenomenon when it comes to openness and

Why so? The internet allows passive ‘users’ to become
participants and publishers. But, there are also significant
moves “by the handful of traditional ‘publishers’ to set up
barriers that threaten the potential of the digital realm to
level the playing field and create a truly universal medium
for creative expression and technological transfer”.

One can pass over the first two sections speedily; these deal
with global issues, obviously meant to be an introduction to
the African reader. But one does get a set of useful links
and introductions — to groups like the WIPO, the
Broadcasting Treaty, the Access to Knowledge (A2K) Treaty, UN
agencies, UK’s Commission on Intellectual Property Rights (“a
pioneering attempt by a developed country to view
intellectual property through a developmental lens”,
librarians, consumer groups, and lawyers.

There’s even a one-third page introduction to blogs and
wikis, seen from the context of the digital commons.

Quote: “Many of the people connected to the activist
groupings covered in this Guide — librarians,
consumer groups, FOSS proponents and lawyers — are
also ‘bloggers’ — keepers of weblogs. These online
blogs, which mix the values of journal-keeping,
journalism, gossip, investigation and a love of
interaction and communication, are a valuable and
entertaining source of information on, among other
things, the information commons. Many blogs are acts
of both form and content; they celebrate the digital
information commons, while at the same time building
it and using it…”

Likewise, issues of open access, open content and the
Creative Commons (cc) are also discussed.

This book’s worth comes across through the many URLs and
weblinks it offers. There are also contact names and email
addresses, all of which could be of interest to those who
believe, even if slightly, that knowledge is not just a
‘product’ to be profited on. But a powerful tool to be shared
for the benefit of humankind.

Take the directory of African projects. It points to research
and advocacy groups that range from university-based computer
science networks, to policy monitors,
access-to-learning-material networks (www.access.org.za),
Francophone institutions (www.apsidci.org), the African
Virtual Library and Information Network of Addis Ababa, ICT
policy research or campaign organisations (bridges.org,
catia.ws), the Commonwealth of Learning, Highway Africa News
Agency, other networks (OneWorld Africa of Lusaka, Pambazuka,
SAIDE or the South African Institute for Distance Education)
and more.

SANGONeT in Johannesburg is the Southern African
Non-Governmental Organisation Network. Women’sNet is also
based in Johannesburg. And there are others.

This is a useful book, with a lot of links.

It traces copyright law to the so-called ‘Statute of Anne’.

As Wikipedia informs: “The Statute replaced the monopoly
enjoyed by the Stationer’s Company granted in 1556 during the
reign of Mary I which after several renewals expired in 1695.
Under this regime, company members would buy manuscripts from
authors but once purchased, would have a perpetual monopoly
on the printing of the work. Authors themselves were excluded
from membership in the company and could not therefore
legally self-publish, nor were they given royalties for books
that sold well.

“The statute of 1709 [or, Statute of Anne] vests authors
rather than printers with the monopoly on the reproduction of
their works. It created a 21 year term for all works already
in print at the time of its enactment and a 14 year term for
all works published subsequently. It also required that
printers provide nine copies to the Stationer’s Company for
distribution to (official libraries)….”

Enlightenment values tried to balance off the economic
interests of England’s booksellers, with the interests of the
reading public. But copyright terms have kept getting
extended. In the US, for instance, copyrights extend to the
author’s life plus 70 years. Or a term of between 75 and 95
years, in the case of works by more than one author.

As Indian laywer Lawrence Liang from Bangalore comments,
“with global capitalism, control over copyrighted works
became centered in the hands of media corporations instead of
authors and artists.”

But have the authors seen things a bit too pessimistically?
Maybe one should turn-around their statement, and instead
say: for every digital-rights-management-isation there’s a
Napsterisation. For every Microsoft, there’s a GNU/Linux. For
every giant multinational Bertelsmann publishing firm,
there’s a Microsoft.

Why be gloomy and see things the other way round? Power is
with the people. They’re just beginning to see the potency of
alternative content-sharing models. Challenges are
increasingly beginning to come up, in the form of
alternatives. And, the fun has just begun….

The African Digital Commons
A Participant’s Guide: 2005
Chris Armstrong & Heather Ford
IDRC/CDRI Link Centre
The Commons-sense Project
ISBN 0-620-35636-7
Pp 78. Price not mentioned.
Available as Open Content from:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s