During the week before last, I spent several days on the Yale campus listening to faculty and senior adminstrators present on a topic that should be of intense interest to educators everywhere — whether and how a research university should structure itself in order to help its graduates make their way in the post-graduate world. Like a lot of college-based universities, Yale is famous for invoking the “liberal education” mantra. We teach broad reading and critical thinking; we don’t teach to careers.

If Yale and its alumni really took themselves at this word, they’d be guilty of terrible shortsightedness. But they don’t. And more broadly (since I’m thinking about this in relation to IP), we don’t think about IP systems purely in terms of “creativity” — either producing it, or having access to it. The connection is the point of this post. More below the fold.

First, a little more about Yale: What is Yale? For that matter, what is any old university — is it a collection of programs? A faculty? Its students? History? Alumni? All of the above? Pelikan, after Newman, called it “The Idea of the University,” meaning that the university, and any given university, is a durable institution — a concept, really — that resists possession by any single constituency. No one invented Yale; no one owns Yale; no one can say today what Yale “is.” Thus the “stewardship” concept of the post title, which I heard invoked up in New Haven: university faculty, staff, and students of the university are “stewards” of its institutional and intellectual traditions. The “liberal education” isn’t just something that students get during their four (or five, or eight, etc.) years in the college and/or graduate and professional schools; it’s something that they live for years afterward.

Ah, but . . . aside from the somewhat bizarre romanticism of this description, you have to eat to live. How do you eat a liberal education? How do you make “stewardship” consistent with the day-to-day? Yale — the institution in New Haven — spends a surprising amount of time and energy thinking about this problem, from career advising to networking support for alumni; Yale — the graduates — also spends a surprising amount of time not only pursuing an answer, but also talking and thinking about the problem. The liberal education enacts itself.

That brings me to IP. On the one hand, as a model for an IP system, this “stewardship” business has a lot of appeal, at least to me: An author or inventor, and licensees, successors, heirs, etc., are all merely stewards of a creative or innovative ideal. Romanticizing the author or inventor as an “owner” is as temporally inappropriate as saying that the descendants of Eli Yale himself has some proprietary interest in the fate of the university that bears his name. Stewardship of IP — preserving a commons for future creators and consumers — enacts itself.

On the other hand, the “stewardship” model, for IP as well as for other institutions, addresses only some of the issues. Stewardship shouldn’t foreclose institutional change, and it shouldn’t foreclose profit-taking, and it shouldn’t foreclose focusing on some short-term issues. “How do you eat a liberal education?” has its match in “how do you eat creativity?” Focusing on “stewardship” for IP, whether in the name of consumer interests or of future generations, runs the risk of the same shortsightedness that accompanies taking a “liberal education” too, too seriously. Stewardship may enact itself, but when do the checks come in?

All of this is a roundabout, Yale-inspired abstract meditation on the scarcity of commercial concerns in critical dialogues about copyright and other intellectual property interests.

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