Update: How embarrassing. Spelling error in the title. Fixed.
Joseph E. Stiglitz at the World Bank has an interesting paper (or was it a talk?), Knowledge As a Global Public Good, which is focused on understanding how governments should be viewing knowledge to the benefit of everyone.
The purpose of this paper is to review the concept of global public goods, to explain the sense in which knowledge is a public good, and to explore the implications for international public policy that derive from the fact that knowledge is a global public good. In particular, I shall emphasize the role of knowledge for development, articulated forcefully in this year’s World Development Report, and the consequences that follow.
[via Nancy White]
Stiglitz kicks off his thoughts with the quote from Thomas Jefferson that sets the modern definition for public good and knowledge: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." And he combines the idea of (global) public good with knowledge-as-public-good in the body of the paper.
Public Good: The basic definition is that a public good is available to anyone (non-exclusivity) and that its use by one person does not limit its use by anyone else (non-rivalrous consumption). Clearly, concept of the Commons is related: it is a Public Good that can be destroyed by over-use. Think of a field where everyone can feed their cattle, but if there are too many cattle, the entire field is destroyed. A Commons is generally thought of as a local public good, though on the worldwide-environment scale, the globe is a public good.
There are many other Public Goods that are limited in value by their geography or nation or people. Stiglitz has outlined five global public goods in previous writings (see references in the article): international economic stability, international security (political stability), the international environment, international humanitarian assistance, and knowledge. I find it interesting that knowledge is the only one that isn't "international knowledge."
The nice thing about knowledge in this framework is that it's difficult to conceive of a Commons situation. I can share or teach or publish what I know without fear that you (the public) could destroy it or over-use it in some way. In fact, once I put that knowledge into the public sphere in some manner, I cannot take it back. The only way knowledge gets deprecated is that when new knowledge supersedes the old knowledge, and this new knowledge frequently requires a good foundation in the old to understand how something new can work or be created.
How can the state get involved in the sharing (or hiding) of knowledge? This is the role of the intellectual property policy of the state. How are new inventions and ideas covered under patent regulations? Patents put the knowledge in the public sphere, but they also protect the inventor by giving them a temporary monopoly on the invention. The public benefits by having access to the invention itself, and by having access to the details of the invention so that someone else might build upon that intellectual property. The other option is trade secrets, which are an attempt to exclude others from knowledge of the invention, such as how to make a given product, and giving the inventors a longer potential monopoly. Of course, there is the risk of a having the invention reverse-engineered. Another mechanism for governments to help with knowledge is to sponsor or support it financially, frequently through tax breaks on R&D or through direct funding of knowledge-creating activities (research centers, university research, etc.). This is all part of the IP policies of a government. Stiglitz is interested in international intellectual property policies and how that might be accomplished to the benefit of industrialized and developing nations, as well as the benefit of all citizens of planet earth.
Beyond these laws and regulation around intellectual property and the policies around financial support of innovation, what else does the state have to do with knowledge as a public good? Stiglitz stresses the importance of education -- consistent education at all levels and across economies, so that new students in any locale can participate in the global economy. He also talks about establishing standards bodies to create and promulgate standards and best practices to lift the level of all players in a local economy. Much of this part of the discussion is aimed at developing nations, but developed countries are not always doing the most they can to grow their own knowledge policies. I love this quote at the end of Section II:
Creating the knowledge infrastructure entails "learning how to learn", [quoting himself] that is, creating the capacity to close the knowledge gap, an essential part of a successful development strategy.
The point of the article is that with knowledge as a public good - an international public good - there must be mechanisms put in place that encourage governments to sponsor knowledge for the benefit of their people as well as the benefit of people everywhere.
[Please note: I am not a lawyer. If you need help, please talk to my father in law, who focuses on IP law.]