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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Walker

Book Club of One: Book Report 2


A philosopher, a legal scholar, an economist, and a computer scientist walk into a bar…

I don’t tell jokes because I can never remember the punchlines. Anyone who knows me well can attest.

Academics in each of those disciplines edited a series of essays in one of the more unforgettable nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Intellectual Property and Theories of Justice was by no means a light read, but the essayists grappled with ethical, moral, and practical issues surrounding intellectual property in a way we don’t often encounter in our modern lives. But, reading the collection it made me reflect on how new our ideas of ownership are as it relates to capitalism and markets.

Unlike the other books in my reading list, this text had an explicit focus on non-patent intellectual property. This was a welcome reflection of my professional experience that had mostly encountered copyrights, in the form of curricula and other program materials, and trademarks. It was also helpful to approach the idea of these assets from a variety of justice lenses: political, social, economic, and linguistic are all represented.

The most important takeaway for me, however, was the extensive discussion on the idiosyncratic nature of knowledge in Ramello’s essay. The idea that knowledge is both an input and an output and has tacit and explicit expression stuck with me. He writes, more masterfully than I could summarize, on the idea that knowledge is a social entity:

Knowledge is not just a good or resource, defined and delimited like standard goods produced and exchanged in the markets, but a dynamic entity and a cognitive tool pertaining to social groups that is crucial to both the individual and to social action. Knowledge essentially belongs to the collective context in which it is created. (page 78)

Having been raised in Western culture that prizes individuality and the fruits of our intellectual labor, the passage above gave me pause. Does anything we know or learn truly belong to just ourselves? How did that square with what I had just read by Marshal Phelps?

More questions without answers: If the nonprofit sector is a moral expression, how do we think of the morality of intellectual property rights as managers? If the nonprofit sector serves the non-majority desires of a population, how do justice lenses matter in thinking about intellectual property rights to serve that population? Can intellectual property rights violate one form of justice and uphold another in service to a common good? Do managers think about the knowledge in the people of their organizations in a critical and strategic way or are most satisficing?

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