Leader: Twists in the tale of MIT's great web give-away

April 12, 2001

Argument is hotting up over whether knowledge and information generated by universities should be made freely available or whether it should be regarded as an asset the university or the individual should exploit for profit. The argument is not new, but it is taking new twists. The different approaches of the Sanger Centre and Celera Genomics to publishing information on the human genome is only one of the more recent and celebrated cases. Linux is another, following in the steps of Tim Berners-Lee, whose determination to keep the worldwide web free was the subject of an earlier article in our series on intellectual property rights ( THES , March 30).

Now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home of Berners-Lee's W3 consortium, has moved the debate into the teaching arena by announcing its intention to put nearly all its courseware on the web for free over the next decade. The move comes the same week as dotEncrypt went public with a system that will allow providers to do exactly the opposite: limit access to material disseminated via the web to approved, and presumably paid-up, customers. MIT seems at a stroke to have put in question revenue streams on which many underfunded universities were pinning high hopes.

Public investment in universities last century provided secure conditions for clever people to work on new ideas and technologies (that was, after all, the original intention behind public subsidies) and fuelled repeated generations of new industries. This is even more true now as what Danny Quah ( THES , April 6) calls "the weightless economy" pushes brain work ever nearer the centre of the economic stage. This public investment justifies the notion that, since the public pays, the proceeds of the work should be publicly available.

The argument is not just attractive on these grounds. There is a strong business case for making information freely available and enlisting all comers. The Sanger Centre's open publication policy has released a flood of information that will power whole new industries. Linux's system evolved fast at low cost thanks to the collaboration of users. Oxford's imaginative appeal for spare computing time to speed the search for molecules that could provide the basis for new cancer drugs is in the same tradition. In another academic area, Tufts University's Perseus free database of Greek and Roman texts has fuelled an unexpected resurgence of classical studies. MIT's move may similarly do more to fuel a distance-learning industry than any of the commercial initiatives seen so far: free high-quality teaching materials will cut entry costs. If so, MIT is unlikely to lose. It is not giving away credentials, an MIT degree will still cost.

Unfortunately, public investment is now inadequate to sustain the higher education enterprise. Governments have not proved willing to pay enough to provide good-quality education for large numbers of students and decent pay and working conditions for teaching and research staff.

American private universities addressed this problem by fundraising and by raising tuition fees. Their example stimulated charging and fundraising in American state universities as well. Since the passage of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, both sectors are also profiting from their research. Many US universities, not least MIT, can afford the generous openness that is so advantageous. But in countries where private finance is harder to come by and fee income is severely controlled, exploiting intellectual property has been grasped by institutions and governments as a lifeline.

British universities are being ever more insistently nagged to derive profit from their ideas rather than give them away. Paradoxically, this narrow insistence on commercial exploitation may do more to stifle than to encourage the wealth-generating industries it is supposed to foster.

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