Archive for May, 2013

Economics and The Wealth of the Commons Conference

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

The Wealth of the Commons: A world beyond market & state is finally available online in its entirety.

I’ll post a review in the fullness of time, but for now I recommend reading the 73 essays in the book (mine is not the essay I’d contribute today, but think it useful anyway) not primarily as critiques of market, state, their combination, or economics — it’s very difficult to say anything new concerning these dominant institutions. Instead read the essays as meditations, explorations, and provocations for expanding the spaces in human society — across a huge range of activity — which are ruled not via exclusivity (of property or state control) but are nonetheless governed to the extent needed to prevent depredation.

The benefits of moving to commons regimes might be characterized any number of ways, e.g., reducing transaction costs, decreasing alienation and rent seeking, increasing autonomy and solidarity. Although a nobel prize in economics has been awarded for research on certain kinds of commons, my feeling is that the class is severely under-characterized and under-valued by social scientists, and thus by almost everyone else. At the extreme we might consider all of civilization and nature as commons upon which our seemingly dominant institutions are merely froth.

Another thing to keep in mind when reading the book’s diverse essays is that the commons “paradigm” is pluralistic. I wonder the extent to which reform of any institution, dominant or otherwise, away from capture and enclosure, toward the benefit and participation of all its constituents, might be characterized as commoning?

Whatever the scope of commoning, we don’t know how to do it very well. How to provision and govern resources, even knowledge, without exclusivity and control, can boggle the mind. I suspect there is tremendous room to increase the freedom and equality of all humans through learning-by-doing (and researching) more activities in a commons-orientated way. One might say our lack of knowledge about the commons is a tragedy.

Later this month the Economics and the Commons Conference, organized by Wealth of the Commons editors David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, with Michel Bauwens, will bring together 240 researchers, practitioners, and advocates deeply enmeshed in various commons efforts. There will be overlapping streams on nature, work, money, infrastructure, and the one I’m coordinator for, knowledge.

I agreed to coordinate the stream because I found exchanges with Bollier and Helfrich stimulating (concerning my book essay, a panel on the problematic relationship of Creative Commons and commons, and subsequently), and because I’m eager to consider knowledge commoning (e.g., free software, culture, open access, copyright reform) outside of their usual venues and endlessly repeated debates, and because I feel that knowledge commons movements have failed dismally to communicate their pertinence to each other and with the rest of the world — thus I welcome the challenge and test case to communicate the pertinence of all knowledge commons movements to other self-described commoners — and finally, to learn from them.

Here are the key themes I hope we can explore in the stream:

  • All commons as knowledge commons, e.g., the shared knowledge necessary to do anything in a commons-oriented way, easily forgotten once exclusivity and control take hold.
  • Knowledge enclosure and commoning throughout history, pre-dating copyright and patent, let alone computers.
  • How to think about and collaborate with contemporary knowledge commoners outside of the contractually constructed and legal reform paradigms, eg transparency and filesharing activists.
  • How can we characterize the value of knowledge commons in ways that can be critiqued and thus are possibly convincing? What would a knowledge commons research agenda look like?
  • If we accept moving the provisioning of almost all knowledge to the commons as an achievable and necessary goal, what strategies and controversies of existing knowledge commons movements (tuned to react against burgeoning enclosure and make incremental progress, while mostly accepting the dominant “intellectual property” discourse) might be reconsidered?

This may appear vastly too much material to cover in approximately 5 hours of dedicated stream sessions, but the methodology consists of brief interventions and debates, not long presentations, and the goal is provocation of new, more commons-oriented, and more cross-cutting strategies and collaborations among knowledge commoners and others, not firm conclusions.

I aim for plenty of stream documentation and followup, but to start the public conversation (the conference has not been publicized thus far due to a hard limit on attendees; now those are settled) by asking each of the “knowledge commoner” participants to recommend a resource (article, blog post, presentation, book, website…) that will inform the conversation on one or more of the themes above. Suggestions are welcome from everyone, attending or not; leave a comment or add to the wiki. Critiques of any of the above also wanted!

Inequality Promotion data point: Intellectual Protectionist CEO pay

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Confirming my biases we have For Media Moguls, Paydays That Stand Out. Media company CEOs are the highest compensated of any industry, and are far more highly compensated relative to market capitalization than any other (as has often been pointed out, media companies are a small part of the overall economy and in theory ought to just be bought out in order to end their assault on freedom of communications).

But an even higher proportion of the most compensated CEOs are dependent on intellectual protectionism than is accounted for by the media category. #1 is the CEO of Oracle, #6 is the CEO of Nike (I’m guessing that suppression of counterfeiting is significant), and would-be (due to late filing) #2 is the CEO of Activision-Blizzard, a gaming software company.

Why are IP CEOs unusually highly compensated (thus unusually contributing to inequality)? Why? The article cites concentrated ownership and weak governance of media companies (which begs another question) and concludes:

For the time being, traditional media business models are prospering and the leaders of the incumbents are fat and happy. But that might make them bigger, slower targets and in the end, easier to overtake.

I wouldn’t count on it. If you think inequality is a problem (inherently or because it leads to inequality of power, then law) then intellectual protectionism must be attacked on policy and product fronts.

List of Wikimania 2013 Submissions of Interest

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Unlikely I’ll attend Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong (I did last year in DC). In lieu of marking myself as an interested attendee of proposed sessions, my list of 32 particularly interesting-to-me proposals follows. I chose by opening the proposal page for each of the 331 submissions that looked interesting at first glance (about 50) and weeded out some of those.

I suspect many of these proposals might be interesting reading for anyone generally curious about possible futures of Wikipedia and related, similar, and complementary projects, but not following any of these things closely.

A “kill hollyweb” plan

Friday, May 3rd, 2013
May 3 is the Day Against DRM (Digital Restrictions Management). Please sign the petition against DRM in the HTML5 standard. Then come back and read this post.

Recently I wrote in Why DRM in HTML5 and what to do about it:

Long term, the only way the DRM threat is going to be put to rest is for free cultural works to become culturally relevant.

I’ve complained many a time that rearguard clicktivism against bad policy is not a winning strategy — especially when such campaigns don’t also promote free-as-in-freedom software and cultural works — because as I put it one of those times:

In a world in which most software and culture are free as in freedom there would be no constituency for attacking the Internet (apart from dictatorships and militarized law enforcement of supposed democracies)

But I’m at fault too for not laying out a specific plan for making some free works culturally relevant, let alone carrying out such a plan.

OK, here’s one plan I recently mentioned offhandedly:

‘free-as-in-freedom ~netflix’
  • crowdfund minimum number of subscriptions needed to begin
  • subscriptions used to really nicely package/stream and promote free as in freedom video
  • start with 1 feature-length video selection each month (perhaps even quarter during a beta phase)
  • mix of contemporary (of which there isn’t much yet) and older public domain movies
  • limited, promoted releases concentrate subscription audience: focused increase of cultural relevance, one work at a time
  • given enough subscriptions, start funding new free videos
  • obviously videos would be DRM-free, in free formats, all software used free software, and all ancillary material also free-as-in-freedom

Good idea? Run with it, or if you’d like to subscribe or otherwise help create it in any way, fill out this 3 question survey. Bad idea, but still care? Let me know via the survey. Or mail or contact user mlinksva on some other usual channel.

“Kill Hollyweb” is in part a reference to the Y Combinator Request For Startups 9: Kill Hollywood. The plan above isn’t really a Kill Hollywood plan as it isn’t about replacing movies with some other form of entertainment.

Products that embody openness the most powerful way to shape the policy conversation

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Aza Raskin writing about Mozilla:

Developing products that embody openness is the most powerful way to shape the policy conversation. Back those products with hundreds of millions of users and you have a game-changing social movement.

I completely agree, at least when “product” and “policy” are construed broadly — both include, e.g., marketing and adoption/use/joining of products, communities, ethics, ideas, etc. Raskin’s phrasing also (understandably, as he’s working for Mozilla) emphasizes central organizations as the actor (which backs products with users, rather than users adopting the product, and participating in its development) more than I’d like, but that’s nuance.

This is why I complain about rearguard clicktivism against bad policy that totally fails to leverage the communication opportunity to also promote good policy and especially products that embody good policy, and even campaigns for good policy concepts that fail to also promote products which embody the promoted policy.

To summarize, there’s product competition and policy competition, and I think the former is hugely undersold as potently changing the latter. (There’s also beating-of-the-bounds, perhaps with filesharing and wikileaks as examples, which has product and policy competition aspects, but seems a distinct kind of action; which ought to be brought into closer conversation with the formal sector.)

The main point of Raskin’s post is that Mozilla is a second-mover, taking proven product segments and developing products for them which embody openness, and that it could do that in more segments, various web applications in particular. I look forward to more Mozilla services.

A lot of what Wikipedia and Public Library of Science have done very successfully could also be considered “second mover”, injecting freedom into existing categories — sometimes leading to exploding the a category with something qualitatively and quantitatively huger.

I admit that the phrase I pulled from Raskin’s post merely confirms (and this by authority!) a strongly held bias of mine. How to test? Failing that, what are the best arguments against?

Non-auditable accounting software

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Software Freedom Conservancy has a plan to help all non-profit organizations (NPOs) by creating an Open Source and Free Software accounting system usable by non-technical bookkeepers, accountants, and non-profit managers. You can help us do it by donating now.

To keep their books and produce annual government filings, most NPOs rely on proprietary software, paying exorbitant licensing fees. This is fundamentally at cross purposes with their underlying missions of charity, equality, democracy, and sharing.

You can help Conservancy fix this problem by . We seek to
raise $75,000 to employ a developer for one year to make substantial progress on this project.

This project has the potential to save the non-profit sector millions in licensing fees every year. Even non-profits that continue to use proprietary accounting software will benefit, since the existence of quality Open Source and Free Software for a particular task curtails predatory behavior by proprietary software companies, and creates a new standard of comparison.

But, more powerfully, this project’s realization will increase the agility and collaborative potential for the non-profit sector — a boon to funders, boards, and employees — bringing the Free Software and general NPO communities into closer collaboration and understanding.

I contributed to the above blurb (and would love to hear critiques of the broad claims therein about free software and non-profit missions), but not to my favorite part of the plan: phase 0, in which existing free software accounting software will be evaluated, with expert input from non-profit organizations currently using various packages, in order to choose a base for further development. How many funding campaigns propose to build something without any understanding of what already exists? Almost all as far as I can tell, and almost always a suboptimal move, is my hunch.

This move is in line with one way of looking at Software Freedom Conservancy’s role: to save free software projects from the suboptimality of another kind of NIH — starting an independent non-profit organization — projects (about 30 so far, git probably the best known) join Software Freedom Conservancy, which takes care of administration such as accounting and provides other services.

I’m generally impressed by Software Freedom Conservancy’s work (read the annual report, pretty and informative) and have served on its project evaluation committee (i.e., intake; applying to join Software Freedom Conservancy is a good motivator to get a lot of best practices in place) for about a year and joined its board the beginning of this year, recently announced.

Please donate to the campaign to improve free software accounting for non-profits. In a past role as non-profit manager at Creative Commons, I absolutely hated the internal non-transparency and dependency of our accountants using a proprietary accounting package tied to a particular Windows server. Doing anything about it was nowhere near the top of my list of things I would’ve or could’ve done given more time or hindsight, but I would’ve been really, really happy if someone else had fixed it, much like I was really happy that CiviCRM became a viable free software customer/donor/constituent/funder relationship management system at the right time for us to scrap a very simple in-house system and not become locked into one of the awful proprietary packages (not soon enough to avoid listening to sales pitches in which the salespeople blatantly lied about implementation costs and product capabilities). Now is the time for someone else to take care of the accounting situation — please help by donating — as I just did.

Oh, and even if you don’t care about non-profits at all, I’m pretty confident that this project will help free software accounting in general, and help is badly needed — LWN’s series on the subject last year is gripping reading. Seriously, it is ridiculous that such fundamental infrastructure for running organizations of all kinds and thus society is itself non-auditable.