Sharing Knowledge Online – Who owns it?

One of the greatest things about the internet is that you can learn about anything, literally anything at all. We are in an age where all knowledge is *apparently* free, and that’s certainly a good thing. Many of the people I follow on twitter are involved in MOOCS – ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ in which online courses in, well, just about anything, are taught for free through forums, social media etc. Anyone can sign up, and students are expected to share their knowledge with others. (Some good people to check out regarding MOOCs are Alan Levine and Alaistair Creelman.) In addition, forums and websites exist for almost any hobby or subject – I spent much of Christmas building a new computer from parts, guided entirely by reddit and an assortment of tech forums.

So it seems that anyone can, and should, be able to get any knowledge they need.

However, I recently had a conversation with my mother which raised an interesting point – who owns the knowledge being shared? My mother is a health professional who frequently uses internet forums to discuss new advances and techniques with others in her field. But many of those techniques are taught on courses, often courses sponsored by large pharmaceutical companies who want people to pay the money to take their courses. If the information is explained on the internet for anyone to use, they don’t make that money. This isn’t as clear cut as simply stealing or plagiarising another person’s work – they aren’t taking specific words and images, and they might well be giving credit to the person they learnt it from.

it might be benefiting plenty of health professionals and their patients, but it isn’t benefiting the person who invented the technique, or the company sponsoring the technique. This has apparently become such a problem that companies sponsoring courses sometimes need to specify how and where techniques can and can’t be passed on.

It might easy to say that these companies are wrong to do this and that they are only doing it to profit themselves, especially in this situation where knowledge in the hands of the right people could really help patients. But it’s also easy to see it from the company perspective. They put a lot of time and money into creating a structured environment where experts can safety and clearly teach their ideas, and they want to control that.

This is a complicated topic, and it might require more blog posts to explore it, as there isn’t a right answer. The legalities are also complex, as I’ve written about before (when discussing YouTube copyright) laws often don’t keep up well with the internet. Everyone has to tread cautiously when sharing online.