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IP Without IP?

Rebecca Tushnet’s report on the recent IP Without IP Colloquium (Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV) is as interesting for its method as for its content.

The Colloquium itself was a non-public affair at the Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study.  It was described at the Center’s site as follows:

IP without IP
Exploratory Seminar; Humanities, Social Sciences, and Science

Mario Biagioli (History of Science, Harvard University)
Rochelle Dreyfuss (Law, New York University School of Law)

In the last ten years or so, intellectual property has gone from being a little-known part of the law to becoming a household term. The ubiquity of intellectual property in popular discourse has led to an intriguing (if problematic) transformation of its cultural meaning. Intellectual property remains a technical (and expanding) branch of the law, but it has also become a cultural emblem — a catch-all category standing for an extraordinary range of practices within the new information society. The very concept of knowledge (including notions of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage) have been often recast into IP –a category that is often much more extensive than (and sometimes even incongruous with) the actual domain of intellectual property law.

Taking the cultural reification of the concept of intellectual property as its starting point, “IP without IP” brings together scholars from legal studies, anthropology, economics, history of science, literature, business, and science to analyze the many ways in which intellectual property concerns are in fact often managed not through the tools provided by intellectual property law, but through specific relations between people, professional customs, etc. Through a range of empirical case studies, we want to question the conceptualization of IP as a form of property applicable to (or projectable on) an ever-widening range of products and claims by showing how access to and protection of knowledge and cultural productions can be achieved (and has been achieved) without resorting to the law. We do not present these practices as opposed to legally codified IP, but as elements of a landscape of social practices that include IP law and from which it could draw to reinvent itself in the face of mounting and widespread criticism.

That sort of discussion sounds familiar.

Rebecca’s report makes clear that the dialogue was fast-paced and sophisticated, and so much so that only snippets of themes really come through in her blogging.  Among them:  There is a lot of fascinating work being done in IP-related domains by anthropologists, sociologists, historians of science, and students of organizational behavior.  And Rebecca doesn’t list or identify the Colloquium participants, which creates a challenge if you don’t already know who is who and why certain points are being made.  Those with an inside-baseball view of these disciplines read and benefit from an uncommonly casual “so he/she was there too! and isn’t that neat” flavor to the account.

Rebecca’s meta-example of IP [mostly] Without IP suggests some of the strengths of describing a creative environment without being tied to a formal model (in this case, presentation-followed-by-comments-and-Q&A), and some of the weaknesses of that approach.  “Thick” descriptions of this sort can be inaccessible to outsiders, and at times they leave even insiders wanting more structure.  Certainly, as most of the Colloquium conversation seems to agree, interdisciplinary case studies are the future of IP scholarship, but case studies of what, and to what end?

There is certainly more to come on this theme.  Stay tuned.