The Value of Cultural Property

I spent an entire day this week at the Linux World conference and expo in San Francisco. I have been going there for quite some years now, and this year there was a marked change. Clearly linux has taken off, as measured by the presence of suits and the absence of the usual casual jeans and tshirt crowd.

The way I see it, the linux explosion is not a revolution based on freeing software, or of intellectual property being free to roam, but it is based on a cultural revolution one in which those jeans and tshirt people set about collaborating to make wonderful things happen. And as I walked the main expo floor, it was saddening to see none of the people there. Everywhere one saw marketing androids, jazzy displays, fast-talking snake-oil sellers, piggy-backers on the great ideas of the hidden progenitors of this wonderful software movement. In other words, the culture was missing, replaced by the commercializers, grim reapers of intellectual property rents, amortizers of human and cultural capital.

Someone told me that there was another floor upstairs. So I went looking and found all the originators there: FSF, KDE, Gnome, Debian, Gentoo, Mozilla, etc., each and every one of the not-for-profit organizations was relegated to this attic, clearly unable to pay for the now-expensive marketing floor space. The humbleness was in striking contrast to the commercial arrogance on the floor below. The soul of linux has died and been sent upstairs.

So, I am worried. If we discard the culture of the movement and just adopt the values of the commercial, will the movement remain what it is? I cannot see its vitality remaining for long, when its core is assigned scant respect.

We are becoming a nation of marketers, selling our values to the highest bidder. We have become good at protecting intellectual property (IP), but are failing to protect its very source, our cultural property (CP).

The recent patent and copyright extensions that Congress underwrote are a case in point. By protecting monopolies of IP, we are diluting the culture of distributing intellectual capital for the greater common good. It is a transfer of the cultural value that forms the roots of our nation, to property value that can only be sustained as a monopoly. Intellectual property that is mostly surplus rent (created by monopoly) and not fundamental value (based on culture) is in the end worthless.

Take another hot button outsourcing. By suggesting solutions that are tax-based or some other form of protectionism, we seek to protect our rents, not the true underlying source of value, the culture of scientific progress that raised America to its eminent status. We should be fixing our schools, not protecting our jobs.

We see it starkly in corporate settings. Companies that prevail in maintaining their cultural values that led them to their breakthrough successes, are those that do well in the long run. Companies that do not, eventually find that the very people that built them leave, dazed by what became of their cultural brainchild.

We see it in academic settings. By rushing to protect our business school rankings, we ignore the true culture of great academic institutions, their role in knowledge creation. By turning professors, whose role is the creation of human and intellectual capital, into marketing people, the rankings racket is short-selling our academic culture.

Think rust – cultural property is like shiny steel, the protection of intellectual property is like rust forming on the steel, robbing it of sheen and effectiveness. Steel begets rust, especially when it lies unused and ignored. This week I saw rust forming in the attic of the expo hall. I hope it can be shaken off vigorously.

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