The Ownership of Information

To what extent is information a tangible asset that can be owned, traded and stolen, or is it an intangible resource that should be freely accessible to anyone? Do you remember how Encarta, and later Wikipedia, redefined knowledge ownership in the encyclopedia industry? Clearly when proprietary knowledge and information are packaged in a tangible form like a book or CD that has a price attached to it and is not available free of charge, the tangible form can be owned, traded or stolen. But what about knowledge and information that is in the oral form, for example a valuable insight or tidbit of information that I share with you over a cup of coffee, or an open lecture I give with some original content? What if the insight I share with you is an original idea of mine? What about a song I compose or a book I wrote that has become available on the internet despite my failed attempts to keep them proprietary? Can others take these ideas or works and use them without compensating me?

Some disciplines seem to have a defined view of knowledge ownership. The recent media and legal attention to insider trading makes the legal view on valuable information clear: it can be owned, it can be traded and it can be stolen. Information thieves are subject to long prison sentences. In the academic world plagiarism is not tolerated, but other than by recognition, writers and researchers seldom pay one another for their ideas. Many universities have abandoned ownership of their course content which they have made freely available on line and only retained ownership of live participation in courses, the alumni network and the brand associated with graduation.

In business, and more particularly in the digital world, different companies seem to have evolved differing philosophies about the ownership of knowledge. Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible -- and mostly free. Some argue this will discourage innovators and artistically creative people from producing new work. Others argue the sum total of innovation will be far greater and we will see more work from people who are driven by the passion to create than from people whose creative drive is driven by the profit motive. Apple appears to take the opposite view. It protects access to its own intellectual property and with iTunes and iBooks, also the rights of artists and authors to the ownership of theirs.

This difference between Apple and Google goes to the core of their respective corporate souls, and the higher purpose each strives to serve. When we work with companies to define their higher purpose, we intensely examine who their primary customer really is. Once we demonstrate the alternatives we very seldom find that companies' leaders are clear or unanimous about who their primary customer is, nor about the strategic consequences about what customer they choose to be their primary one. The difference in who Google's and Apple's primary customer is, is at the core of their differing philosophies and strategies.

Google sees the seeker of information as the primary beneficiary of its contribution, and the entity towards which it directs its efforts. The ultimate of serving information seekers is to provide them with all the information they seek, free of charge. For Apple's iTunes on the other hand, the primary (but my no means the only one nor necessarily the largest one) beneficiary of its contribution is probably not the user of iTunes but the artist or author. Its purpose then might be to optimize artists' and authors' dissemination and monetization of their work thereby encouraging them to continue to create. To fulfill the purpose of its existence, iTunes must guard the ownership of its artists' and authors' intellectual property, whereas for Google to fulfill its purpose it needs to access as much information as it can for information seekers if possible at no cost. These differences get to the corporate soul of each organization.

Who is right? When it comes to soul, there is no right and wrong, only authentic and inauthentic. For so long as each company is consistent with its philosophy and the reason it believes it exists, it will continue to thrive and grow, each attracting different types of employees, customers and even investors.

Each of our overarching world views determines many choices we make, not only personal moral choices, but also corporate strategic choices. When companies clearly articulate their beliefs and discover their corporate souls they can consistently act in ways that are authentic to them and aligned with the essence that makes them sparkle with their own uniqueness.

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