Who Owns the World’s Knowledge?

The Convoco! Edition is an annual book series that collects contributions from our thinkers on Convoco’s annual topics. The edition is published in both German and English.

Who Owns the World’s Knowledge?

Series: Convoco! Edition

Contributors: Eckhard Cordes, Urs Gasser, Thomas Hoeren, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Christoph G. Paulus, Jürgen Renn, Burkhard Schwenker, Hannes Siegrist

Pages: 300

ISBN 978-0-9572958-0-3

Paperback: £7.20

Available here

“Knowledge is power”, Thomas Hobbes wrote nearly half a millennium ago. If knowledge is indeed a source of power, the question “Who owns the world’s knowledge?” is paramount. It is an important but difficult question, to which there are no simple answers. Yet, it is clear that knowledge is losing its elitist character and flattens onto the democratic body.

This volume investigates the causes of global knowledge inequalities and points at possibilities how the digital age can empower a just redistribution of knowledge.


We cannot know what a new knowledge system will look like: that is the uncertainty of knowledge. In addition it is not a question of should, as knowledge is much more a matter of will than obligation. If we keep our eyes and above all our minds open we can see the circumstances necessary for the creation and diffusion of knowledge. And what we can see in today’s circumstances is the “attack of the past” on the future of knowledge, that is the justified attack of rigid traditional interests, the attack of doctrines belonging to entrenched economic mind games from centuries past. These attacks are weakening, as science now possesses the technical means of communication in hitherto unknown quantities and potential such that it can create and share knowledge, come together with a common purpose, and form altruistic networks in the interest of us all. The attacks of the past may be weakening but they cost science time in the future. Let us change the circumstances now, so that the future can begin in the present.
Herbert Burkert

A new knowledge system must not only question the allocation of and access to knowledge—we have been familiar with these questions for a long time, even if we have not taken them seriously enough up to now—but it must also question the diversity of knowledge.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

New technologies are breaking down the systems which have been developed over time and which protect our knowledge. We must acknowledge that science is in the throes of becoming a common property which is constantly in flux. We need new intellectual approaches and legal tools which are technologically appropriate. We can only take on this challenge if we are prepared to abandon our old ways of thinking about the ownership of knowledge. Instead of ownership we should be thinking about responsibility. Whoever wants to use knowledge should also be prepared to take responsibility for it.
Corinne M. Flick

A knowledge system that wants to do justice to the conditions of the future and the meaning and value of future knowledge must not only ensure a fair and appropriate balance between knowing and multiplying, but must also take into consideration the increasing democratization of the modern world of the Internet. The requirements of these three interests—this magic triangle—must be taken into account.
Christoph G. Paulus

Every day we perceive new ways in which the digital revolution is changing our traditional media and simultaneously offering new net-based media opportunities, while the regulatory framework is still stuck in the past. Since national borders and marginal distribution costs have become practically irrelevant, content producers and knowledge brokers need a regulatory framework in which neither classical media providers nor companies subject to local legislation are systematically disadvantaged. Therefore we call upon policy-makers to create a level playing field where the same rules apply for all companies.
Paul-Bernhard Kallen

Fundamentally every knowledge system is faced with a dilemma. It has to find a balance between the most comprehensive accessibility and application of existing knowledge on the one hand, and the creation of optimal incentives for the production of new knowledge on the other. The logic of collective action in political economy teaches us that in practice this balance is often tipped in favor of the knowledge producers. It would be helpful to bear this issue in mind and occasionally take it into account within the political process.
Kai A. Konrad

Abraham Lincoln famously said: “Patents are the fuel that feed the fire of invention.” Humankind profits from knowledge and innovation. However, this is only possible if those who derive relevant benefits from the creation of new knowledge can, through copyright and patents, provide the necessary capital to turn their dreams into reality.
William A. Haseltine

Knowledge grows and fragments. Knowledge quickly becomes outdated while still growing more and more complex. This process is unavoidable so we should find a way of using it productively in both micro- and macro-economic terms. For this reason the conditions of knowledge production seem in the long term more important than the distribution of knowledge or even the guarantee of property rights. A key factor is interdisciplinarity in education and science, but also in the economy, so that Germany can continue to take advantage of its industrial potential successfully.
Burkhard Schwenker

Knowledge is no longer a fixed asset, which is protected by the state and which can be used by the state through public law for its purposes as the experiential basis for legislation and the implementation of the law. Knowledge is dynamic: our experience and assessment of it is always as a process of becoming. This is also how the law today deals with ignorance, uncertainty, and risk. The modern state is in the process of finding substantive, formal rules appropriate to this situation. In future these rules must also determine the preconditions and limits within which the general accessibility of private knowledge, which is important for society in general, can be demanded.
Stefan Korioth

In our free society knowledge is distributed between many different social actors. No one is omniscient. The framework of a market economy creates enormous incentives to use and increase this knowledge. This is also the case in the healthcare sector. By increasing competition we create not only additional incentives for innovation, but at the same time we ensure more cost efficiency.
Philipp Rössler

A new knowledge system should be based on the principle of open access to scientific information and cultural heritage in the spirit of the Berlin Declaration. This should include the right to education and life-long learning. In a knowledge system of the future the basis of decision-making processes in society should be transparent and available for scrutiny by everyone. Access to knowledge should not be a social or cultural privilege. The new knowledge system should overcome the prevailing worldwide inequalities in access to information, knowledge, and education, and create optimal preconditions for managing the challenges facing humanity.
Jürgen Renn

As a historian I hesitate to interpret today’s shifts and upheavals in the global knowledge and communications systems as a profound historical rupture or even as the beginning of a new historical era. Digitization of the media and the change in information technologies revolutionize how we deal with knowledge and information, but not necessarily the entire institutional, social, cultural, political, and economic system. Against the backdrop of the long and conflict-ridden history of the propertization, nationalization, and globalization of knowledge, today’s actors have in principle at their disposal a rich and varied knowledge base through which they can assess and mold the changes currently taking place in the knowledge system.

Hannes Siegrist



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