Whose knowledge is it anyway?

This week we hear from Angela Finn, Deputy Head Learning & Teaching in the School of Fashion and Textiles at RMIT University, discussing emergent issues with intellectual property for the creative arts online.

In recent years, the university has become increasingly interested in defining the ownership of intellectual property. This has become a topic of some confusion and discontent amongst teaching staff and students who are interested in protecting their own rights, for now and the future, for works that have been created within the university environment. In the context of design, sharing images of work can equate to publishing intellectual property. Where more traditional methods of sharing ideas are protected through anti-plagiarism policy and copyright law, the gratuitous reproduction of design images has become commonplace. Compiling and publishing of images is an accepted method of building contemporary knowledge within the visual disciplines and is encouraged through design methods such as recording inspirations in a visual diary – or more commonly now – a Pinterest board.

pinterest

A screenshot of images that are available through Pinterest from a search for home design. https://www.pinterest.com/search

Consider the example of a recent Facebook post where innovative Australian design company ArchiBlox (http://www.archiblox.com.au/designs/) is gaining publicity by sharing and re-sharing their design drawings within the social media space.  The trade-off to generating interest within new markets is to share enough information for the audience to gain knowledge of a uniquely designed product such as the ArchiBlox modular system.

A link to Science Alert at University of Technology Sydney where the original Facebook posting was directed http://www.sciencealert.com/world-first-this-prefab-home-generates-more-energy-than-it-uses

A link to Science Alert at University of Technology Sydney where the original Facebook posting was directed http://www.sciencealert.com/world-first-this-prefab-home-generates-more-energy-than-it-uses

Although ArchiBlox go to the effort of posting a standard disclaimer on their website,

All ArchiBlox designs are subject to copyright law and are subject to the copyright act 1965. All rights retained by ArchiBlox Pty Ltd

They are embracing a different approach to online marketing. Business and industry are beginning to approach marketing of design by sharing design details as a way of setting their products apart from others in the marketplace. There is emerging freedom around making information freely available, in contrast to the earlier style where detailed information about a particular product or service was only accessible after completing a registration process.

The alternative is where companies such as ArchiBlox are overprotective of their intellectual property, to a point where no one would know about the sustainable, forward thinking, carbon positive, cutting-edge design that they are capable of producing. There is a long history within Fashion & Textiles design where being first is more important than being alone in terms of having a creative and innovative idea. There is little evidence of successful prosecution of fashion companies that infringe intellectual property rights through copying, given the rumoured commonality of the practice within industry circles. The costs of pursuing a case are prohibitive and in fashion terms, the evidence to prove an exact copy as well as hardship through a loss of profits is often difficult to procure.

The current debate about whether or not to freely share knowledge is becoming even more relevant as teachers begin to ‘capture’ their skills and knowledge in various formats to build teaching resources. This has been a result of a continuing and growing trend for using digital platforms to accommodate contemporary students, who have complex and varied work arrangements, and to support wider diversity within teaching practice. At RMIT University many large format lectures are recorded, lecturers produce numerous quizzes, blogs, Google+ communities, Facebook groups – the list continues to grow on what seems a weekly basis.  Some staff members have become concerned with ownership of the resulting image, text, film or other online content that is produced. The University will find it difficult to formulate policy around the dynamic nature of the digital environment. There is no clear delineation between lecturers’ paid work and the resources they develop as a side effect of their dedicated teaching practice, which also vary depending on their skill at using these ubiquitous forms of digital communication. The resulting questions may not have clear answers. Can content generated within an individual teacher’s practice be used to support other teachers within the university? What happens when a staff member moves on from RMIT University? Does the university ‘own’ these materials if they are produced by sessional or part-time staff?

I am reminded of the story of the digital revolution that retells the legend of the first software designers that published code for other designers to use and improve — this is long before our contemporary understanding of open source systems. One of my lecturers at university would tell his students the story that the rule of thumb was that if you liked a particular program you could send an envelope containing $5 to the author as a token of your appreciation. The resulting software was the back upon which today’s giants such as Microsoft, Apple Inc. and Google were built. What would have happened if each individual designer had developed their own software in isolation? Would we have the type of ubiquitous technology we have now? At a quick count I have at least seven personal computing devices (my personal and work laptops, iPads, iPhones as well as Apple TV) within a three metre radius of my sofa!

These questions would be resolved much more easily if we agree with the idea that knowledge cannot be owned but rather, as teachers, we are guardians of the knowledge we have accumulated and our main role is to offer this knowledge to our students. After all, where would any of us be without the people who shared their knowledge with us in the first place?

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