the theology of open access

At least since Natalie stirred the hornets’ nest about plagiarism before Christmas (first HERE and then HERE), I’ve been thinking about open access.

The ethical stance and in-principle commitment it embodies has long attracted me.

It’s why I love this piece (warning: it’s long, but oh so worth it!) by Katharine Viner the Editor In Chief of the Guardian Australia. (Together with The Newsroom, she has me absolutely convinced I want to become a journalist when I grow up!)

Although, even more attractive is the way open access seems to be an ethical position begging for a theological treatment.

Not because it can’t exist without a theological treatment. And not because it’s somehow incoherent or logically inadequate without one.

But because I feel that a theological treatment of the cluster of issues around open access (and intellectual property) could unlock its sense and significance even more powerfully.

Without trying to do too much with thoughts that are still undercooked, let me gesture in the direction I want to move in.

To begin with, you could argue that IP has an antitheological origin. Carla Hesse begins her history of IP, ’The rise of intellectual property: 700 B.C. – A.D. 2000: an idea in the balance’ by noting this:

The concept of intellectual property — the idea that an idea can be owned — is a child of the European Enlightenment. It was only when people began to believe that knowledge came from the human mind working upon the senses — rather than through divine revelation, assisted by the study of ancient texts — that it became possible to imagine humans as creators, and hence owners, of new ideas rather than as mere transmitters of eternal verities.

While I’d want to do more with the very brief caricature of pre-Enlightenment thinking about knowledge and ownership (was there no understanding of authorship in the premodern world?), Hesse’s portrait does remind me of Tolkien’s notion of humans as ‘subcreators’.

According to Tolkien, as creatures, the strongest thing we can say about our human ‘world-making’ potential is that we are subcreators rather than full-blown creators (for only God is the Creator).

As a result, it would certainly be fascinating — not to mention possibly explosive — to follow through the implications of embracing some kind of principled theological refusal to identify human beings as creators in a strong sense.

What would this mean for our sense of authorship?

What about for ownership of ideas (or anything we might fashion)?

And how would this impact the people trying to make a living out of what they fashion — intellectually or physically?

Of course, this would need to be worked out within the bounds of a robust theological account of our creaturely agency — alongside and undergirded by God’s sovereign agency…

I sense a major — and no doubt collaborative — undertaking coming on!

(Or someone could pay me to write a PhD on it.)



  1. Best of luck getting a publishing house to sponsor your doctoral thesis that will put their business and profit models at risk!

    And there lies the rub… The computer industry (and art industry to some degree) has embraced GPL and other methods of disseminated creation and ownership – for example – linux, the worlds most used server operating system – and some companies survive even with the product being ‘no cost’ and without an ‘author’. Maybe there are lessons to be learned, but I agree that we should have some form of theology around it…

    I think also (as my comment shows), breaking off the commercial aspect from the real underlying issue would also be difficult….

    1. Even worse – how do you test that the doctrinal ‘candidate’ has knowledge of their subject?

      Sounds like you have the basis for 2 Phd’s now – a second on how to deal with disseminated research? Or you could just aim for a combined nobel prize – i’m sure that would look as good on the resume as a doctorate…

  2. Thanks for this, it’s an interesting idea.

    GPL is interesting (as much as I hate it, I’m a BSD licence fan myself, but that’s another story). The idea that it’s better for society to collaboratively work on things and give it away for free, than doing everything in house and sharing nothing. Many companies open source what isn’t their key business, and lock up what it. Both Apple and Google are very similar in this regard (as much as people think otherwise). Linux (i.e. the Linux kernel for the geeks) is fascinating for this, as it runs half the server world, and your Android phone, and companies share the kernel and their improvements, whilst adding their own bits on top as they see fit.

    As for who gets credit, this gets hard (but often sadly needed it seems in this world). Creative Commons is interesting in this regard. It’s hard enough in academia to get funding for half the work that needs to be done (if you can’t write it up in a paper, who wants to do it?), but sometimes the collaborative nature of things works well. Wikipedia is an obvious, though not great example, but in mathematics, the polymath project [1] and Nicolas Bourbaki [2] both come to mind as times that collaboration without attribution worked. I suspect it works much better when people are secure enough in their jobs that they can get work done without worrying about funding.

    I’m a big fan of open access, IP and such issues, and the idea that IP only exists when we believe humans create knowledge not discover it is an interesting one. The fact that so often in science people “invent” the same idea independently (say, calculus for example) suggests from a purely world view that knowledge is discovered more than invented, even the mathematical thing they have created seems it seems like an invention. From a Christian perspective, I think looking at the world *clearly* shows that God is a mathematician and we are simply discovering the beauty and order of his great creation 🙂

    So I’ve rambled enough I think, but really keen to see you developing these ideas more fully. I should probably get back to writing up my own PhD.


  3. I once read somewhere that Kierkegaard distinguished apostles and prophets, who bring revelation from God, from geniuses or the like, who simply catch on more quickly to what is waiting to be discovered at the edges of existing knowledge. Helped me to stop trying to be “original” in sermons.

  4. I’ll be fascinated to see where this goes! On a tangent, the theological ideas here remind me of a book I’m part way through reading: M. Douglas Meeks’ ‘God the Economist.’ His contention is that the oppression built in to our current global economic arrangements is expressed by excluding labourers from access to the products of their work. Like (and also very unlike) the questions of whether we can ‘own’ an idea, can we really claim to ‘own’ the work of someone else’s hands?

    This seems to me to be the same idea of ‘open access,’ but from the other angle; can we cause harm both by denying others access to our own work, and by denying others access to their own work? Might there be a tension between denying our intellectual property to others and denying others’ right to their own intellectual property?

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