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An Historical Perspective on the Commodification of Information


Intellectual Property: An Historical Perspective on the Commodification of Information, by Darcy Sharman, a recent grad of the University of Alberta library school, presents a look at the development of commodified information from early beginnings to the technological present. It is an interesting paper that has relevence for the current practice of librarianship, because librarians make information available for free (with public or community funding) at a time when there is increasing pressure to view all information as a commodity.

The introduction is ahead:

The concept of intellectual property informs many aspects of the way we interact with information. We believe in the existence of the \"original author\", and we legislate to that author the right to own and profit from his or her ideas. We also agree that the disseminators of these ideas--publishers, distributors, and online service providers--can \"buy up\" information and benefit financially from allowing the public to access it. As our economy becomes more and more information based, possession and control of this type of intangible \"property\" becomes increasingly imperative to economic survival.

Implicit in this scenario is a process in which information becomes commodified. Bringing information into the forefront of a market system changes it from a shared resource into a purchased good, and transforms its access from right into a privilege. Recent advances in technology bring their own complications into the picture, as in the modern context what the information consumer is purchasing is often not the information itself, but the right to view it, temporarily, on the seller\'s terms.

Critics of the present situation often state that technology has spurred the commoditising process, and that the principles of information ownership are created and perpetuated by those who create technological trends. But is the commodification of information really such a new process? Is technology really its source? Or does the current situation have deeper social and political roots? This paper will examine the idea of information as a commodity from an historical perspective. It will propose that the role of technological innovations in supporting commodification is reflective of underlying cultural values that enshrine market processes, profit orientation, and disposability, rather than an outside force that the culture reacts against. The role of libraries as a counteracting force, democratising information access, will also be discussed.