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What’s Ours Is Yours, Really!

Like the rest of society, the philanthropic sector is increasingly moving away from producing and  distributing intellectual property the old-fashioned way, and is becoming ever more reliant on creating digital versions of its formerly printed products, as well as in video and audio form — all of which makes these products extremely easy to share.  The goal is to put valuable knowledge in the hands of more people who can learn from, act on, even build on it.  And unless they’re being sold or distributed as commercial products — they’re generally made available for anyone to copy, pass on, and sometimes modify. Rarely does anyone charge for them, other than, perhaps, to pay for production and shipping costs for the few who still insist on hard copy versions.  Our sector certainly welcomes this development and sees it as a great leap forward. 

I was recently reminded of the benefits we, in the not-for-profit sector, have when it comes to making our materials widely available and encouraging wider sharing and adaption, and not having to worry about profiting.  Some in the private sector actually view technology that makes it easy to share other people’s “intellectual” property, as a threat. That’s one of the arguments of the book, Digital Barbarism, written by Mark Helprin, according to a review of it (“Hands Off, It’s Mine), in the May 1 Wall Street Journal.

Reviewer Jeremy Phillips writes that Helprin worries that the growing ease with which people can share and sometimes modify other people’s work, and distribute it widely, puts copyright protections at risk. Helprin, according to Phillips, argues that without sufficient protection–i.e., the right to profit from your ideas–people might lose the incentive to create new work. Phillips says Helprin goes even further to sound the alarm that our culture is being threatened by “the degredation of concentration, the triumph of the image over the word, the rise of multitasking, the surge of plagiarism.”

In response, Phillips writes, “…any writer depends on people still taking time to read. A greater access to words, one hopes, will lean to more reading–if often on a screen instead of a printed page.”

Like I said, it’s great that we can be freed of those profit “incentives” and concentrate instead of building audiences for what we have to say — and doing everything we can to make it easy for people to access this work and put it to good use.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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