Interview

The American University and the Ownership of Ideas

The Software Freedom Law Center's (SFLC) Eben Moglen is one of the high-powered attorneys representing the challenge to Blackboard Inc.'s patent of certain learning technologies. Campus Technology asked Moglen about some of the broader issues surrounding patents on such education technologies.

Could you broaden out for a minute from the Blackboard patent and tell us about the larger implications for higher education and for people who want to work in an open educational environment?

The problem presented for the university professor or graduate student who wants to work in an open environment is that the university has been closing itself for a generation now. The great tertiary and quaternary education system of the United States that grew up after the Second World War was a work of socialism. It was a product of two elements of American socialism: the GI Bill and its attempt to create egalitarian access to knowledge for a generation of people who had fought for the country, and the cold war big science initiatives that poured enormous amounts of public money into prestige research universities. Beginning with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981, both of those forces began to subside. And we have been slowly starving the American higher education system ever since, the consequence of which is that American universities have increasingly found the future of their very expensive, very high quality educations to be dependent upon the production of proprietary knowledge--paid research, paid for by pharmaceuticals and other owners of ideas. University faculty have therefore increasingly found themselves bit by bit living within a system which treated their activities, traditional activities in the spread of knowledge on free terms within a university structure, increasingly serving a rather different purpose.

The Blackboard patent and the ownership of teaching methods and the creation of owned or unowned platforms for higher education in that sense, fits more I think into the larger background: the relationship between the American university and the ownership of ideas. What happens over the course of the next ten to twenty years, is that America as a civilization decides what value it places upon that extraordinary higher education system that it built post war. If it chooses to maintain that system, it will need to resuscitate the socialism that built it. If it chooses to attempt to finance higher education in a primarily for profit, proprietary knowledge fashion, it will begin to face [many limiting elements] with respect to information technology or that are now powerful with respect to pharmaceuticals, other questions of biomedical science.

So, when you see those members of the professoriate walking around feeling uneasy about the Blackboard patent and its effect on free higher education, what you're really looking at is an intelligentsia that isn't sure anymore whether there's anybody to trust. Their own leadership no longer seems to believe in the shared ideal of knowledge freely available to all in which they as products of the post war American university grew up, and there's a great deal of nervousness about the future. I honestly cannot say with any degree of optimism that we know what will happen, because we do not know whether Americans have the stomach for the cost of that beautiful education system, and whether they're prepared to see it continue. It's a hard and easily obscurable issue for people, often faced in the form, "Do you want your kid's tuition go up?" but not often placed in the form, "Do you want the higher education sector of the American economy maintained as a commons for which there ought to be access irregardless of people's available economic resources?"

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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