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October 12, 2006

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A society that shares:
India's tradition of knowledge

by Venkatesh Hariharan

Intellectual property. It's one of the defining terms of the 21st century. The recent knowledge symposium, "Owning the future: Ideas and their role in the digital age" deconstructed the term "intellectual property" and examined the assumptions beneath it. Since the event was being held in India, it seemed appropriate to examine intellectual property in the context of Indian traditions of knowledge.

Though no one has a proprietary lock on yoga, it is still a thriving $30 billion business in the United States.

Anyone with even a passing interest in India knows that India has a rich tradition of intellectual inquiry. Over several millennia, India has been home to mathematicians who calculated the orbit of the earth around the sun with astonishing accuracy, the intensely evolved spiritual traditions of yoga, the ancient system of medicine called ayurveda and many others. India was also home to the first university in the world, the Nalanda University. Set up in the fifth century, the university had over 10,000 students and 1500 teachers. Even the word Nalanda means "one who is insatiable in giving."

Most of the branches of knowledge in India were rooted in India's spiritual traditions and great value was placed on the sharing of knowledge. This is seen in the respect accorded to the guru--one who imparted knowledge--even today in India. Knowledge was even considered to be one of the paths to salvation.

One of my favorite stories illustrates the importance accorded to the sharing of knowledge. After the brutal battle of Kalinga, the Emperor Ashoka was so overcome with remorse that he renounced bloodshed and embraced Buddhism. As part of his penance, Ashoka went to monasteries across the country.At each monastery, he would leave munificent donations of gold coins. At one monastery, the emperor left behind one solitary gold coin. When his perplexed followers asked him to explain, Ashoka said that the abbot of the monastery was a great man but he did not share his knowledge with others.

At the deepest level, this is the ethos that lead to the flourishing of a great culture where the arts and the sciences prospered. However, there is a cautionary tale here that illustrates why eternal vigilance is the price to be paid for liberty.

...the urge to colonize knowledge and claim it as private property is an eternal one.

Anyone with even a passing interest in India also knows that India's caste system was (and remains) one of the greatest blights in the history of this country. The traditional system of social stratification in ancient India categorized people into four classes, Brahmana (scholars), Kshatriya (warriors or politicians), Vaishya (mercantiles) and Shudra (service providers). In the initial period, the caste system was flexible and the caste one belonged to was determined on the basis of merit. For example, the word 'Brahmin" literally means, "One who knows Lord Bramha, the creator of the Universe." Thus any individual could merit the status of a brahmin by virtue of spiritual practices that helped them realize their unity with the creator of the universe.

Over centuries this meritocratic setup got hijacked and subverted into an exploitative system where one's status was determined by birth. Thus, to be a Brahmin, you had to be born into a Brahmin family and knowledge of the sacred scriptures could be acquired only through inheritance. The lower castes were considered "untouchables" and were ruled with an iron hand by the upper castes. Knowledge had now become proprietary and it was decreed that if a lower caste person heard the sacred scriptures they should be punished by pouring molten lead into their ears. The repercussions of this divisive system are still being felt in India millenia later.

There are two key lessons to be learned from India's history. The first is that intellectual pursuits flourished in ancient India despite the fact that the terms "intellect" and "property" were rarely combined in the same sentence. One of the finest examples of this is the vast traditions of yoga which have been synthesised over thousands of years in a manner akin to the "share and share alike" philosophy that governs most of open source software development. Though no one has a proprietary lock on yoga, it is still a thriving $30 billion business in the United States.

The second is that the urge to colonize knowledge and claim it as private property is an eternal one. We need to be constantly vigilant about it, especially in an environment where private gain is worshipped as the greatest motivation for innovation.

The term "intellectual property" reduces knowledge into a tangible product. In international trade negotiations, when India negotiates on the basis of the term "intellectual property," we implicitly accept that intellect can be reduced to property and all that remains is to dot the i's and cross the t's. We buy into the rhetoric that without the "propertization" of knowledge, there will be no innovation. And in doing so, we ignore our own history where astonishing innovations flourished over thousands of years. In accepting the term "intellectual property," we implicitly accept a playing field that is dominated by the commercial traditions of the West, rather than the spiritual traditions of the East.

What are the consequences of accepting this playing field? To understand this, let us shift, for a moment, into another playing field, that of field hockey. Until the early eighties, hockey was played on grass and the dominant players were India and Pakistan because of their artistry and wrist work. When synthetic surfaces began replacing grass, India and Pakistan lost the primacy they enjoyed. The game became much faster, emphasizing speed and athleticism over artistry and skill. Secondly, synthetic surfaces were expensive, and few clubs in India and Pakistan could afford them, leading to a decline in the game in these countries. From 1928 to 1956, India won 6 successive gold medals in the Olympic Games. The shift to synthetic surfaces saw a permanent decline in the fortunes of Indian hockey, even though hockey remains the national game of India.

The selection of a playing field is fraught with economic, social, and political consequences.

Just as the term "horseless carriage" vanished into history, we may find, a hundred years from now, that the term "intellectual property" has faded into oblivion. The industrial era mindset is that, in giving, we make ourselves poorer. But, in the digital era, we can enrich ourselves immensely by giving. Indian tradition belives that knowledge grows through sharing. The open source philosophy, based on the principles of collaboration, community, and shared ownership of intellectual resources has much in common with Indian traditions of knowledge. We therefore owe it, not only to India, but to the world, to ensure that the sharing of knowledge and not its reduction into "intellectual property" is the norm.

About the author

Venkatesh Hariharan is a journalist turned open source evangelist. He works at Red Hat India on public policy and academic relations.