The Trans-lingual Commons: Translating Open Content

Creativity and innovation are essential ingredients for the development of human society. Scientific, economic and social evolution requires the orchestrated efforts of many intellectuals, working together on overcoming challenges to human development and inventing novel concepts, theories, tools and technologies that can be effectively exploited to serve humanity and improve the well being of society. Think for a moment of the scale of technological and social developments in our modern world. While some may argue that these developments have been misused, no one can deny the considerably higher quality of life we enjoy compared to our ancestors. Cures now exist for infectious diseases that once could destroy a complete nation, travel and communications became much easier and cost effective that people can now engage in dialogues with each other in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago, and the list goes on.

Such massive developments could only become possible through the empowerment of researchers and intellectuals to capitalise on the gigantic body of knowledge built by their fellow creative workers. Every innovator taps into the knowledge sources produced by others and contributes back to the development of human wisdom. However, with the increasing complexity of creative and intellectual work, appropriate incentive systems should be implemented to motivate intellectuals to invest their time and effort in contributing to the global knowledge creation. Without such systems, very few are willing to devote their scarce resources to expand the borders of knowledge in the highly demanding modern lifestyle. But these incentive systems should be carefully designed to serve their main purpose: motivating intellectuals to produce creative work by guaranteeing them a fair return on their investment of intellectual and financial capital. They should not block access to knowledge in such a way as to prevent others from capitalising on the previous body of knowledge in their pursuit for creativity and innovation.

Traditional copyright regimes were devised to serve exactly this purpose. They promise any intellectual worker who is willing to spend time and effort developing creative materials (artistic, scientific, technological, etc.) an appropriate reward for her investments by giving her the exclusive right to exploit these materials commercially for a certain period of time. Copyright laws also (at least theoretically) guarantee access to these materials for others through different mechanisms, such as fair use, limitations and exceptions and by limiting the term of exclusive protection of creative works.

The Internet has undoubtedly revolutionised access to knowledge and creative content on a global scale [2]. Its ability to bypass geographical and physical barriers previously constraining distribution of content and access to information, combined with the unsurpassed power of digitisation in storing, indexing, searching and retrieving creative materials have changed the dynamics of the creation, development, distribution and access to information and creative content. More people are now able to retrieve content, develop their own and distribute it to practically anyone in the world with a connection to the Internet, in what may be called the democratisation of content creation and distribution tools. Nevertheless, existing copyright laws which were mostly developed in the offline era did not evolve sufficiently enough to enable this new movement to prosper and grow. Several authors have argued that traditional copyright regimes have serious flaws that render them ineffective in the rapidly changing electronic information age [1, 3, 4]. The limitations imposed by these regimes can be clearly noticed in their blocking of the flow of knowledge across the language barriers [5]. In a time where much hope is being placed on knowledge and innovation to address the massive problems faced by humanity, such as eradicating poverty, providing appropriate healthcare to those who can least afford it, and combating climate change, just to name a few examples, traditional copyright systems are preventing the knowledge generated by humanity to be translated into other languages so that researchers, practitioners and policy makers in other parts of the world can exploit it to tackle the challenges they face.

This paper aims to investigate the potential afforded by open approaches to content licensing and distribution in facilitating the free flow of knowledge across the language barriers. It will highlight the need for relevant content presented and distributed in local languages as a distinctive enabler for development, knowledge dissemination and development research activity. Several case studies, supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), will be described in which the open licensing of original content provided an opportunity for this content to be translated into other languages and subsequently exploited by local communities to improve their quality of life. The impact of these cases will be evaluated, and the paper concludes with recommendations for action with regards to openness in content licensing and translation, and provides pointers for further work in this regard.

Authors: Anas Tawileh and Adel El Zaim

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