Thinking about ownership

Back in November, Mireille Jansma mentioned on Twitter that David Weinberger had suggested that the act of public sharing could effectively transfer ownership to the public. Since then I have been pondering the nature of ownership in an environment where collaboration and knowledge sharing is increasing. This post contains some of those thoughts in a more or less structured form.

[Just so we know where we are, it is important to note from the outset that my understanding is that IP law (in most jurisdictions) provides that material produced by employees as part of their employment becomes the intellectual property of the employer. (If this is significantly wrong, please can an IP lawyer correct me.) However, this does not mean that your employer owns what is in your head, before it is crystallised into something tangible as a consequence of  the employer’s instructions.]

The comment of David Weinberger’s came during the online conference Corporate Learning Trends and Innovation 2008. It is possible to review the conference, but the recording comes in a whole-day chunk. Weinberger’s session starts at about 3:53:00, and the key quote comes at 4:52:32-4:53:20, in response to the question “How do we deal with copyright in a crowdsourced world?” Weinberger started his answer by referring back to the US Constitution: “The real interest of copyright in the US is… in creating a viable public space.” He then went on as follows.

We want to, I think, not only redraw the balance… but we want to gain back the notion that we have lost in the past couple of decades that the aim of copyright is not to provide creators with a natural and inalienable right to their own stuff they create as if it were just another piece of property.

We want to get back, I think, to the notion that if you create something for the public, the public to a large degree owns it. And you [the creator] get the benefit from it for some limited term — I like making money off what I write — but then ultimately the aim of this is to get stuff out into the world that the public can use. 

I am not sure that Weinberger’s comment is as inflammatory as Mireille feared, but it is still useful to ponder who has an interest in the stuff we create collaboratively (and by this I include the joint venture of blogging with comments, as well as the more usual wiki-related collaboration).

The question of ownership and blogs came up in a discussion on the 3 Geeks… blog about the proper relationship between a law firm and the blogs created by their people. Following an initial post, Greg Lambert returned to the topic with a detailed summary of the pros and cons of personal blogging as opposed to using the law firm brand. In a comment, Doug Cornelius offered a middle way.

Ideally, I think a legal blog should not be formally branded by the firm and should not have the firm’s name in the blog title or URL. The blogger should clearly state that they work for the firm, but the views do not necessarily reflect those of the firm. The law firm should link out to the blog, but not have it integrated into the official firm site. Link the blog in the person’s bio and let the firm’s clients know it is there (but the views are those of the individual).

The firm gets the benefit of association for good blog posts/discussion and can disassociate for those that are bad or contentious.

Interestingly, Jordan Furlong looked at this question back in March last year.

I actually don’t think a law firm with more than a handful of lawyers really can blog, because blogging is by definition personal and can only really be performed at an individual, not a corporate level. A firm can set up a number of blogs for its lawyers to write, seeking brand power: a fleet of lawyers all writing great blogs on important subjects under the firm’s letterhead. But these blogs will all have different voices, use varying degrees of formality, address matters in more or less depth, publish at different frequencies — each one reflecting the individual behind it. All that these blogs will have in common is the banner and design.

The thing is, lawyers aren’t cans of Coke: a law firm can’t issue a brand promise about what each and every interaction with its lawyers will feel like. The same applies even more so to lawyer blogs: you can’t brand tone and personality, and a great blog invests heavily in both these things. Blogs, by definition, can’t support a law firm brand.

If Jordan’s last statement is true, then law firms should not be seeking to own the blogs run by their people. However, I am not sure that it is true that “you can’t brand tone and personality.” If your brand is more than a visual identity — a logo and a letterhead — then it must be about tone and personality. Those are the things that distinguish different firms. At any given level in the legal market, there is no sensible distinction between firms in the legal work that they do and the quality they produce. What does make a difference is the way that the work is done. It is in that respect that I think a law firm can potentially make a real difference by showing how it works through the way its lawyers communicate. That must include blogging — for those firms whose culture and brand support full engagement with the medium.  

It is clear that there is confusion about ownership when it comes to wikis. This is amply demonstrated by a comment e-mailed to the Guardian by a reader:

I’m e-mailing in regard to your story on Wikipedia [here]. It’s a pity there is not some clear e-mail address underneath each article so that we might e-mail the author directly. It’s the New Media way!

Except that it is not the new media way, is it? Clearly, material on Wikipedia cannot easily be said to be the creation of any one contributor. However, inside the firewall the material created on wikis probably does belong to the organisation — reflecting the copyright position I mentioned at the outset. How comfortable a position is that? Does the firm want to own something which is by definition fluid and possibly inchoate? Do individuals take the view that they are giving up their knowledge to the organisation by collaborating? I don’t know — it will be interesting to watch and learn. 

Then today, Stephen Collins tackles ownership from a quite unexpected angle. In a long and thoughtful post on employee engagement and retention, he came up with this gem:

…we need to understand that our staff are on loan, particularly the good ones. We don’t own them or their personal brands. We only have them until we stop giving them engaging things to do. We should be prepared to let the reputations of our people and the new people we can attract act as a positive influence on the brands of our businesses. We should learn from our superstars and let them be free with how they do their jobs and get on.

Ultimately, we are all responsible for the value we create. And we also get the most benefit from what we do — even if the organisations we work for take a bit of credit along the way.

3 thoughts on “Thinking about ownership”

  1. Law firms are true knowledge entities. They are only as smart and knowledgeable as the harnessed knowledge of their lawyers. The better they harness that knowledge, the better the firm will be.

    Harnessing does not mean oppressing them to the will of the collective. It means having them drive the knowledge creation of the firm.

    Let them be free to create content share their knowledge and learn form others.

    If you limit that sharing to the walls of the firm. You are limiting yourself. By sharing inside and outside, you are increasing the knowledge base of the firm. Yes you have leakage of exclusively internal knowledge to the outside. But you also open the flow for knowledge to come in. Some of that is as good or even better than your internal knowledge.

  2. @Stephen: Yes I did mean “gem” in a positive sense. I hadn’t even thought that it might be interpreted otherwise when I was writing, but I see now that it could have been.

    @Doug: Your comment exemplifies what I said about blogging being a form of collaboration. The points you make really enhance the basic blog post: thank you!

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