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April 23, 2004

Brewster Kahle on Universal Access to Human Knowledge

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Posted by Wendy Seltzer

When Brewster Kahle sees a problem -- preferably a big, hairy, audacious problem -- he's likely to ask, without blinking, "Where do we start?" That's the approach he's taken to his (and our) current task, providing "universal access to all human knowledge."

Where most of us would be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task, Brewster sees a challenge to be categorized and attacked systematically: Why can't we as a society share with all of our members the learning we've produced? What does that mean? Well, let's say there are 26 million books in the Library of Congress; 2-3 million sound recordings; maybe 100,000-200,000 theatrical releases and as many more video ephemera; 50 million websites; 1000 channels of television. For each chunk, the Internet Archive has a project: The Internet Bookmobile and million book project; live music archive; moving image collections; and, of course, the Wayback machine.

In his closing keynote for CFP, Brewster asked three questions about this universal access to all human knowledge: "can we?" "may we?" and "will we?" He expressed little doubt on the first -- technology can get us there if we have the will. As for the "may we?", to Brewster's credit, he's not willing to let the law block his vision. So he starts with public domain and permission-granted works, and builds. Perhaps that takes us to the point where the archives speak for themselves, begging to be filled first with orphan works, then classics, then ... the sky's the limit.

May we all share Brewster's will.

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts


1. cypherpunk on April 24, 2004 1:39 AM writes...

Universal access would be great if knowledge were static. But it's not. Knowledge is dynamic, always growing, always changing. It is the increase and improvement in human knowledge which defines our progress from the caves to the world of today.

The real problem is not access to knowledge, it is maximizing the growth of knowledge. Our social institutions of science, commerce and the arts are all oriented around this goal. This is the measure by which we should judge Kahle's proposal.

The problem with providing universal access to the knowledge of the past is that it provides no incentive to create the knowledge of the future. To the extent that we adopt universal access as a goal, we eliminate the possibility of proprietary increases in knowledge, of individual benefit from expanding human knowledge. Universal access is an inherently collectivist approach, in which all benefit equally from any increment to the store of knowledge.

What, then, will provide the motivation for people to undertake the often heroic efforts of the past in order to expand knowledge? Who will be the next Thomas Edison, if his discoveries all pass immediately into the public domain? These collectivist ideas summon up a utopia where each gives according to his ability, and each takes according to his needs. We all remember how well such seemingly attractive principles have worked out in practice.

I understand that Kahle is tempering his call for universal access to include only voluntary contributions. That's reasonable and appropriate. The problem is with those who will interpret Kahle's proposal as not just a matter of facilitating a system of voluntary cooperation, but who go beyond that and fasten on this idea of universal access as a philosophical concept worth pursuing for itself. It is this philosophy which I see as being deeply and fundamentally erroneous, in point of fact a Communism of ideas.

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2. Andrew Levine on April 24, 2004 2:23 AM writes...

"The problem with providing universal access to the knowledge of the past is that it provides no incentive to create the knowledge of the future."

Eh? Are libraries a disincentive for people to write books?

"To the extent that we adopt universal access as a goal, we eliminate the possibility of proprietary increases in knowledge, of individual benefit from expanding human knowledge. Universal access is an inherently collectivist approach, in which all benefit equally from any increment to the store of knowledge."

What in the world is wrong with everyone benefiting equally? As long as the equal benefits enjoyed by each person in a collectivist system are exactly the same as the benefits that would be enjoyed by an individual if he were the only beneficiary of that system, isn't the collective approach better? This is not like, e.g., food in the USSR, where the supply is limited and thus a collectivist approach leads to hoarding and stealing. This is a resource which is just as large whether used by one or shared by one billion.

"These collectivist ideas summon up a utopia where each gives according to his ability, and each takes according to his needs. We all remember how well such seemingly attractive principles have worked out in practice."

This is disingenuous in the extreme. You are forgetting that "each takes according to his own needs" is only a problem when the common goods are limited. Here we are talking about downloading files from the internet, and the low cost of bandwidth makes the commons effectively nonscarce.

"It is this philosophy which I see as being deeply and fundamentally erroneous, in point of fact a Communism of ideas."

See above for rebuttal.

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3. cypherpunk on April 24, 2004 2:48 PM writes...

It sounds like you're not so much disagreeing with my point about Communism, as defending the philosophy when applied to the online world. You say that the Communist principle of having each person take according to his needs is not a problem online, where there are no limits to duplicating information goods.

If so, I admire your willingness to admit that the commons movement is in fact informational Communism, and to argue that although it may not have succeeded in the physical world, it can thrive online. I have to admit that I adopt a similar position: I argue that Libertarianism is peculiarly adapted to the online world. Absence of coercion is the defining principle of Libertarianism, and coercion is basically impossible online.

The problem with Communism is not the part about taking according to needs, for as you say the goods are infinitely replenishable. The problem is with the other half: from each according to his ability. This was a fatal problem in the physical world. There was no incentive for people to work hard, to be creative, or to make advances and improvements, because there was no reward. Each person was just supposed to summon up the motivation to work and create, for the common good. This approach failed.

Any attempt to transplant Communism online is going to run into the same problem. This is what I was getting at in my earlier message. History shows that it is necessary to provide individual, private rewards in order to motivate people to give their greatest efforts. A few people will be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others, but not most.

In your library example, to complete the analogy a true universal access library would allow everyone to check out books for free and to keep them as long as they wanted, and the library would never run out of books. In that case, I think the library would definitely cut into book sales and therefore provide a disincentive for people to write books.

These kinds of disincentives are an implicit part of Communism, whether in the physical world or online. Failures of incentive for creation are a fatal flaw in these proposals for universal access.

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4. Andrew Levine on April 24, 2004 6:54 PM writes...

"This is what I was getting at in my earlier message. History shows that it is necessary to provide individual, private rewards in order to motivate people to give their greatest efforts."

It has already been seen that even if content is given away for free online, people who enjoy are still willing to pay for it. It's true that when content is provided without charge a lot of people will not pay for it, but this is counterbalanced by the fact that direct donations via the Internet elminate nearly all of the traditional middlemen between author and consumer.

As an example, Cory Doctorow put his first novel online for free. The hardback version still sold out of its first run and went into a second, and then went into paperback. By any measure, that is a successful book.

Now, if Doctorow had not signed on to a publisher and had instead simply given away the text for free online, accompanying it with a call for donations "if you liked the book," I am certain that he would have made a sizable amount of money; fewer people might have paid him than bought the paper edition (although I would have donated), it's possible that he might have made more money (although I do not think that was his aim in writing it) because in the current situation the publisher's profits, their expense for printing and distributing the books, and the booksellers' profits all cut into the price paid by the consumer.

I have downloaded entire albums online on peer-to-peer networks and then, if I decided I liked them, bought the CD as a way of compensating the artist. If a band gave away MP3s of their album and I liked it, and there was a link on their page allowing me to donate money to them by credit card or PayPal or whatever, I would gladly give them money; in fact, I have done this. An artist on an independent record label gets about $5 for the sale of a $16 CD (even less on a major), but just downloading their music and paying them $10 by PayPal puts $9.41 in their bank account. If they want to spend some of that money on marketing to reach a wider audience (which would be the only remaining useful job that the entertainment industry would serve after everything is online for free), then they can do so. The same notion applies outside of entertainment, to the world of academia; putting good research online, where it will be much more visible than if it were just published in a journal that can only be found in 100 private university libraries in the world, puts money directly into the pockets of the researchers.

I know this certainly doesn't sound like Communism to me. It seems that the people in this issue who are most trying to stifle individual liberty and free markets are the music labels, publishing houses, academic journals, etc. which are quickly becoming obsolete and are desperately trying to jury-rig the law into their favor.

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5. Scott Matthews on April 24, 2004 10:21 PM writes...

The notion that authors can rely on donations is totally wrong, and I can at cite my own experience selling my own digital work (in my case, software). For about a year I tried a "donationware" approach, but it didn't work. When I finally switched to a more conventional approach (and I really tried to make donationware work) the sales total immediately jumped by a factor of about 10.

Also, using Cory as an example isn't really reasonable given his celebrity status -- are you seriously suggesting that his situation would apply to other less-known folk?

I also know that some people are amazingly generous, but most people will just choose not to pay (or will conveniently forget).

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6. Joseph Pietro Riolo on April 25, 2004 7:17 AM writes...

To Cyberpunk,

You have some valid points. But, what is missing
from your comment is the role of balance between
the need to have access to and use the knowledge
and the rights of people to own pieces of knowledge.

The current trend is to tilt balance toward the
propretary in knowledge. Brewster Kahle seems to
say that he wants to restore the balance by tilting
it away from unlimited propietory interests in
knowledge. That is going to be a very uphill
battle for him because very large majority of
authors and artists (as opposed to users) wants to
hold on their proprietary interests in their
intellectual works for as long as they want.

It seems to me that you have strong dislike for
informational communism (I am using your words
although I could use different words). Commons
is not necessarily the same as communism. For
example, the English language is common to all
people. Does that mean that the English language
is communistic or does that mean that a person
who wants the English language to stay common is
commuist? There are some knowledge that are
common to all people such as laws (in other
countries, laws are owned by governments),
measurements, standards, historical events, ideas
(at least in the U.S.), facts, works that were
returned to the public domain, and so on. If you
don't like informational communsim, does that
mean that you want these knowledge to be owned
by someone? Do you really want the English
langauge to be owned by a person or a group of

History repeatedly demonstrated that current
knowledge is built on many layers of the knowledge
that is common to all people. In other words,
societies heavily depend on the pool of common
knowledge so that they can flourish. Patents
are a good example. If you look at some of the
patents, you will see that they have the list
of older patents that they depend on. Many of
the patents are already common to the people
(that is, they are in the public domain when
their patent protection expires). If you don't
like informational communism, does that mean that
you want these patents to have perpetual
protection where they will never become common
to all people? I don't think that Thomas Edison
will be able to make inventions if all of the
previous foundations for his inventions are
owned by people.

The opposite of communism is captialism. The
history seems to show that capitalism is the
best way to distribute the wealth among the
common people (I am not talking about communism
here; by common people, I mean private individuals
who do not have special privileges to the wealth
such as kings, princes, and so on) and also is
hospitable to the freedoms. However, if
captialism is left unchecked or becomes unbalanced
(for example, the wealth is concentrated among a
very small percentage of population), captialism
does more harm than benefit. That is why we have
antitrust laws and eminent domain. The U.S.
highway system is a good example of making it
common to all people.

By applying the same principles to the knowledge,
if people are allowed to have perpetual ownership
in their intellectual works, the future generations
will have difficult times to build the new
knowledge on the previous layers of knowledge.
The growth of knowledge will be retarded. Just
imagine the consequences if the drug makers are
allowed to have perpetual protections in the

The copyright and patent systems give very powerful
incentives to the common people to come up with the
"new" intellectual works. It helps to accelerate
the growth of knowledge. But, like iron in your
body (too much iron is bad for your body, too little
iron is also bad for your body), too much and too
long protection will retard the growth of the common
knowledge which in turn will retard the growth of
proprietary knowledge that depends on the common
knowledge as the fertilizer.

It is all about balance (again, if iron in your
body is in the right range, your body will be
healthy). Just because I support that the
propriety knowlege should become common to all
people does not mean that I support communism.
Not every form of commons is equivalent to
informational communism.

(Regarding Andrew Levine's comment, I think
that not too many peole are as thoughful and
caring as him. People tend to be selfish
than altruistic.)

Joseph Pietro Riolo

Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions
in this comment in the public domain.

Permalink to Comment

7. brewster kahle on April 28, 2004 3:42 PM writes...

Nice write-up, Wendy, thank you.

On the followup posts, there seems to be theme where "universal access" means no compensation for creators.

This has not been true before, and I think it will be safe to say it won't be true in this imagined future.

For instance, I am told that 25%-33% of libraries budgets go to publishers products. The US library system costs $12B-$24B each year, so that is $3B-$8B going to product sales. That is a lot of money. (A very small percentage of that goes to authors, but that is a different issue).

I am not suggesting we spend less, but rather we spend that money in a way that benefits more of the public (both the creators and the readers-- which tend to greatly overlap).

And libraries are only one way to make money while making things available.

Any businessman worth his salt will salivate at getting to a potential market of 6billion people. A new generation of companies have adapted beautifully to this new relatity (amzn, google, yahoo...).

Therefore, I don't think we need to fear for capitalism's decline quite yet, and the upside is the world gets access to great materials.


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