Intellectual Property Rights: Who Owns the Knowledge?

By Callahan, Anita L.; Callahan, John J. et al. | Industrial Management, May/June 1993 | Go to article overview

Intellectual Property Rights: Who Owns the Knowledge?

Callahan, Anita L., Callahan, John J., Kischuck, Sandra J., Industrial Management

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, many philosophers and sociologists have been concerned with the "deskilling" impact of automation within the workplace. Deskilling implies a reduction in the skill set and level of skills required to perform certain activities, and is usually, but not necessarily, associated with increased mechanization. Researchers foresaw a societal stratification with two classes of workers; those who have the knowledge, and thus control of the workplace, and those who have neither the knowledge nor the control.

Many social scientists have cried out for the education of the masses, access to technical knowledge and, as a result, access to more of the responsible jobs of the future. While possession of knowledge may be a requirement for the status jobs of tomorrow, knowledge alone will not be enough to guarantee security and continued employment. Control of the knowledge will become necessary to maintain one' s employment status.


The issue of the control of knowledge manifests itself in today's society in the question of intellectual property rights--who owns the products of the mind? Such products may include new algorithms to solve old problems, computer codes to implement new ideas, or even the ideas themselves.

Recently, both the popular press and the publications of many professional societies have tried to grapple with the issues of who owns and controls the knowledge. However, with the possible exception of Hochschild, the premise is almost always that the organization owns the intellectual property. The primary argument in many of these discussions is which of the various employing organization controls the specific knowledge. It is rarely concerned with who within an organization owns the knowledge. In particular, an employee who gained the product specific or applicable knowledge to develop the product prior to the employment with the organization creates a premise similar to the argument made by Taylor, that the worker owns the muscle that he in turn leases to the organization.

Suppose, for the sake of argument that a small machine shop with a specialized market hires a numerical control(NC) programmer. Further, if the company is able to accurately determine all the NC programs that it will ever require and the NC programmer completes the programming task and documentation of these required programs within three years, the small company will have no further need of the programmer's services. The programmer is then terminated, but the company continues to rely on the NC programs and remains profitable. Has the company's treatment of the individual employee been equitable?

Or suppose that an organization hires a computer programmer to develop the proprietary software that will enable the company to function indefinitely. Again, by some quirk of fate, the organization is able to accurately predict all the software that will ever be required by the firm for the foreseeable future. The programmer is provided with the specifications for the software, and proceeds to write a system of programs to fulfill the requirements of both an accountant and a manager. Within five years (this programmer is very efficient), the assigned task is completed just as tenure with the organization is imminent. Because the company has been able to accurately predict its needs, the programmer, whose services are no longer required, is terminated. However, the company continues to be profitable using the proprietary software that was developed. Is the termination ethical on the part of the organization?

Consider a third scenario. This time, an expert system is being developed by an organization to aid in the design and analysis of the company's product line. Engineers and technicians are repeatedly interviewed and their responses integrated into the system until the expert system's recommendations cannot be differentiated from the recommendations of the experts. …

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