By and by changing intellectual property regimes copyright and DRM included – are appearing on the radar of social scientists. The input of social science to the many-voiced transdisciplinary dialogue about these issues INDICARE being one place among others for this exchange is welcome. Social scientists as observers promise to generate a broader perspective beyond the narrower view of stakeholders. The article by Ursula Holtgrewe which we review in the following is an interesting case in point.

Some basic assumptions
Holtgrewe starts from two premises: First, the commercial sector and the public domain do not follow the either-or-rule of a "zero-sum game". What has to be understood is the interrelation between both. The public domain is understood here in a broad sense as "the sphere of freely accessible knowledge and/or cultural goods that may be circulated, used and further developed by anyone" (p. 41). Second, intellectual property regimes are a means to govern the relation between commercial and public information provision: And as such they become "a dynamic object of action, discourse, power and influence themselves” (p. 40).

Her reasoning is meant first of all to challenge the "essentialists" who opt for either the market or the public domain. Second, she argues against current legislation, the European Copyright Directive and its national implementation in Germany in particular, which she perceives as a threat to the (once) beneficial balance between the commercial and public sectors.

What I find most interesting, however, is her claim in the field of social theory, namely to overcome what she calls "digital neo-Marxism" (p. 45). Digital neo-Marxism basically sees at work the “capitalist contradiction between forces and relations of production” (p. 44). It exists in two variants, the optimistic one highlighting the inherently free and cooperative logics of new technology, while the pessimistic one sees the intensification of capitalist exploitation logics. “At this point, the perspective of the sociology of knowledge brings in a contrasting view. It emphasises the contextual, processual, potential and generative character of knowledge. Here the focus is on the practical and embedded utilisation of knowledge” (p. 45).

In order to demonstrate some benefits of this sociological perspective, she takes a closer look at two concrete social "contexts": the music sector and scientific publishing. The differences she identifies between the two sectors are indeed very interesting.

Comparing the music sector and scientific publishing
While the music sector might appear at first glance as governed by markets, and scientific publishing as governed ultimately by the "communist" (Merton) rules of scientific knowledge production and dissemination, in reality both fields present patchworks of mixed economies. In the music sector for instance the creation of music and performing are often "not purely for-profit" (p. 46), and important parts of distribution and consumption take place as non-commercial "social exchange". In addition levy schemes and collecting societies have their role.

In scientific publishing knowledge production is mostly public, the physical production and distribution however mostly commercial, although authors often do the pre-press work. Archiving is a public activity when done by libraries and a commercial one when done by databases providers etc.

Following Holtgrewe, in both fields the institutional arrangement is in crisis. In the music sector consumers have been empowered by new technical possibilities (provided by the ICT industry) and they have leveraged this potential by enhanced forms of "social exchange" – think of file sharing networks for instance. High prices for CDs to be paid by the end-users themselves are regarded as an important incentive to go for free content. At the same time, as she observes, the music industry was reluctant to make use of the technical potential and to come up with new attractive business models. Instead the industry followed a conservative strategy relying on restrictive legal regulations and technical protection measures. All in all the music industry has manoeuvred itself into a crisis of demand.

In contrast in scientific publishing the "serials crisis" (or "journal crisis"), a supply crisis, is the starting point. This crisis made obvious that the basic institutional arrangement with commercial publishers on the one hand and libraries on the other hand as bridge between the commercial publishers and the public domain – did not work well any more. The new technical possibilities are used now to redefine the boundary between for-profit and non-profit activities in this sector. Pre-print archives, open access journals etc. are indicators of the attempt to get larger parts of publishing back into the public domain. The attitude of end-users and industry in this field is rather distinct from the music sector: Scientists as users did not protest significantly against the established arrangement for a long time, because they often do not have to pay themselves for the information needed. The university or research institution pays. From the point of innovativeness, commercial publishers were early birds starting many electronic services, especially databases, even before the invention of the Internet, and were thus prepared when the new network technology appeared.

Overall the article shows that context matters and that a comparison of different fields is a worthwhile exercise. But there are more topics Holtgrewe’s "exploratory study" (p. 40) touches upon. I would like to point out four worth further debate.

  • Holtgrewe warns not to overestimate the Open Access movement. It took a long time for authors to become aware of the serials crisis and the changes happening, and as long as reputation is linked with commercial journals the general picture will not change too soon. This however may differ from discipline to discipline. With respect to the OA movement she misses "institutional imagination" when developing open access platforms, e.g. to “experiment with more open forms of evaluation instead of peer-review” (cf. p. 53).
  • With reference to Michel Callon she points to the fact that technical accessibility is not yet "open access" as it does not per se avoid exclusion from knowledge. "The very contextuality of knowledge makes it exclusive" (p. 45). Additional information work is required to make scientific knowledge digestible and usable for other groups.
  • Drawing attention to "social exchanges" to address non-commercial exchanges between colleagues, family, friends etc. is an important step. It adds a level of consumption and information use transverse to both commercial exchanges and exchanges in the public domain. I doubt however that a broad generic term like "social exchange" is very helpful to address this level.
  • A further interesting aspect she touches is the contradictory policy of governments, who on the one hand support OA initiatives and on the other hand comply with the demand of commercial lobbies when it comes to legal regulations.

Bottom line
The article reviewed is strong in exploring the intellectual property regimes in fields as different as the music sector and scientific publishing, and in providing a picture of the patchwork of for-profit and non-profit activities in these fields. However, the article does not live up to its ambitious claim of a sociology of knowledge which makes the utilization of knowledge the centre of observation.


About the author: Knud Böhle is researcher at the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at Research Centre Karlsruhe since 1986. Between October 2000 and April 2002 he was Visiting Scientist at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in Seville (IPTS). He is specialised in Technology Assessment and Foresight of ICT and has led various projects. Currently he acts as editor of the INDICARE Monitor. Contact: + 49 7247 822989,

Status: first posted 24/11/05; licensed under Creative Commons