Archive for January, 2014

Technology and wealth Inequality Promotion

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Sam Altman, Technology and wealth inequality:

Without intervention, technology will probably lead to an untenable disparity—so we probably need some amount of intervention. Technology also increases the total wealth in a way that mostly benefits everyone, but at some point the disparity just feels so unfair it doesn’t matter.

This widening wealth divide is happening at all levels—people, companies, and countries. And either it will keep going, or innovation will stop.

The very first intervention ought be in our innovation policy, which presently is tuned to maximize concentration of wealth and minimize the access of everyone to the benefits of innovation — because our innovation policy is a property/rent seeking regime. A few data points.

Such an intervention won’t stop innovation, but might change it, and we should want that. Beautiful progress is that which is produced by a freedom and equality respecting regime. We ought be suspicious and ashamed of progress which depends on infringing freedom and promoting inequality. If mass spectacle ends when the regime falls, all the better. We’ll love whatever culture we have and create, will be amazed by its innovation, in part encouraged through non-enclosing innovation policy.

If innovation-driven inequality is a big problem, we ought be more highly valuing (including figuring out how to characterize that value) and promoting existing systems which depend on and promote freedom and equality, i.e., commons-based ones such as free/open source software and the Wikimedia movement (and recursively working on equality and diversity within those systems).

Innovation could tend to increase inequality independent of wealth concentrating, property/rent-seeking based innovation policies and other political factors. If this is the case (or honestly even if it is not), I’m always disappointed that progressivity of tax systems isn’t central to the debate — and I don’t mean marginal income tax rates. Basically property > income > sales. Further, property property can’t be moved and taxing it doesn’t require extensive privacy invasions. In theory I’d expect the strongest states and most free and equal societies of the future to strongly prefer real property taxation over other systems. But perhaps path dependencies and other factors will swamp this (and innovation policy as well).

Public domain wins copyright week!

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

public domain wins copyright weekEFF coordinated a six day copyright week, with suggested readings and actions in support of six principles, below with readings + actions count:

  • Transparency: 10 + 1 = 11
  • Building and Defending a Robust Public Domain: 16 + 0 = 16
  • Open Access: 9 + 2 = 11
  • You Bought it, You Own It: 8 + 3 = 11
  • Fair Use Rights: 14 + 1 = 15
  • Getting Copyright Right: 7 + 1 = 8

I couldn’t help but notice that the public domain “wins” by the metric of total readings + actions, perhaps indicative of relative enthusiasm and evaluation of importance by the communities EFF reaches. Good.

The apparent “loser” is getting copyright right, which I’ll also take undue satisfaction in: it’s an impoverished objective, relative to expanding and protecting intellectual freedom. Alternatively, public domain maximalism (second alternative, corresponding to the runner-up: fair use maximalism) is getting copyright right. But I acknowledge advocating “getting copyright right” (and the entire exercise of copyright week) is a fine thing to do given constraints, and its “loss” is likely due to being a more difficult writing assignment, and falling on the last day.

The latent “loser” though is the role of commons initiatives in changing the knowledge economy, thus the range of policies which can be imagined, and the resources available to support various policies. Some initiatives are mentioned, but almost exclusively as victims of costs imposed by bad policy. Daniel Mietchen’s Wikimedia and Open Access might be the reading closest to what I’d like to see a whole day dedicated to (on the seventh day of copyright week, commoners made their own freedom). Though starting with copyright-imposed costs to the project, Mietchen proceeds to describe collaboration among Wikimedians and the Open Access movement, and ends with (implied) competition:

wider exposure of Open Access materials through Wikimedia platforms may perhaps serve as an incentive for researchers to reconsider whether putting their articles behind access and reuse barriers is an appropriate approach to publishing them.

Related, because it is the domain of the most robust commons initiatives, it is too bad software was not the primary topic of several copyright week readings and actions. But even ignoring the seventh day angle, it is incredibly short-sighted to treat software as a separate category, whether for purposes of study or policy (e.g., copyright). All of the traditional subjects of copyright are now largely made with and mediated by software, but that’s just the beginning. Soon enough, they’ll all be software, or be obsolete. (In hindsight I should have noticed copyright week approaching, and urged various free/open source software initiatives to participate, and explain their policy relevance and potency.)

Back to cheering, I highly recommend at least skimming a few of the readings in each category, linked on the EFF copyright week page. Unless you follow knowledge policy writ large really closely, you’re almost certain to learn something new about policy battles that will play a large role in shaping the future of society.

To make up for the lack of copyright week “actions” recommended for building and defending a robust public domain: sign the public domain manifesto, upgrade your work to the public domain, and enjoy and share the greatest public domain film to date.

Annual thematic doubt

Friday, January 10th, 2014

As promised, my first annual thematic doubt post, expressing doubts I have about themes I blogged about during 2013.

Intellectual Freedom

If this blog were to have a main purpose other than serving as a despository for my tangents, it’d be protecting and promoting intellectual freedom, in particular through the mechanisms of free/open/knowledge commons movements, and in reframing information and innovation policy with freedom and equality outcomes as top. Some representative posts: Economics and the Commons Conference [knowledge stream] report, Flow ∨ incentive 2013 anthology winner, z3R01P. I’m also fond of pointing out where these issues surface in unusual places and surfacing them where they are latent.

I’m fairly convinced on this theme: regimes infringing on intellectual freedom are individual and collective mind-rot, and “merely” accentuate the tendencies toward inequality and control of whatever systems they are embedded in. Mitigating, militating against, outcompeting, and abolishing such regimes are trivially for the good, low risk, and non-revolutionary. But sure, I have doubts:

  • Though I see their accentuation of inequality and control as increasingly important, and high leverage for determining future outcomes, copyright and patent could instead be froth. The cause of intellectual freedom might be better helped by fighting for traditional free speech issues, for tolerance, against mass incarceration, against the drug war, against war, against corruption, for whatever one’s favored economic system is…
  • The voluntarily constructed commons that I emphasize (e.g., free software, open access) could be a trap: everything seems to grow fast as population (and faster, internet population) grows, but this could cloud these commons being systematically outcompeted. Rather than being undersold, product competition from the commons will never outgrow their dwarfish forms, will never shift nor take the commanding heights (e.g., premium video, pharma) and hence are a burden to both policy and beating-of-the-bounds competition. Plus, copyright and the like are mind-rot: generations of commons activists minds have been rotted and co-opted by learning to work within protectionist regimes rather than fighting and ignoring them.
  • An intellectual freedom infringing regime which produced faster technical innovation than an intellectual freedom respecting regime could render the latter irrelevant, like industrial societies rendered agricultural societies irrelevant, and agricultural societies rendered hunter-gatherer societies irrelevant, whatever the effects of those transitions on freedom and other values were. I don’t believe the current regime is anywhere close to being such a thing, nor are the usual “IP maximalism” reforms taking it in that direction. But it is possible that innovation policy is all that matters. Neither freedom and equality nor the rents of incumbents matter, except as obstacles and diversions from discovering and implementing innovation policy optimized to produce the most technical innovation.

I’m not, but can easily imagine being won over by these doubts. Each merits engagement, which could result in much stronger arguments for intellectual freedom, especially knowledge commons.

Critical Cheering

Unplanned, unnoticed by me until late in the year, my most pervasive subtheme was criticism-embedded-in-praise of free/open/commons entities and actions. Representative posts, title replaced with main target: Creative Commons, crowdfunding, Defensive Patent License, Document Freedom Day, DRM-in-HTML5 outrage, EFF, federated social web, Internet Archive, Open Knowledge Foundation, SOPA/ACTA online protests, surveillance outrage, and the Wikimedia movement.

This is an old theme: examples from 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2012. 2009 and 2010 are absent, but the reason for my light blogging here bears some relation to the theme: those are the years I was, in theory, most intensely trying to “walk my talk” at Creative Commons (and mostly failed, side-tracked by trying to get the organization to follow much more basic best practices, and by vast amounts of silliness).

Doubts about the cheering part are implied in the previous section. I’ll focus on the criticism here, but cheering is the larger component, and real: of entities criticized in the above links, in 2013 I donated money to at least EFF, FSF, and Internet Archive, and uncritically promoted all of them at various points. The criticism part amounts to:

  • Gains could be had from better coordination among entities and across domains, ranging from collaboration toward a short term goal (e.g., free format adoption) to diffuse mutual reinforcement that comes from shared knowledge, appreciation, and adoption of free/open/commons tools and materials across domains (e.g., open education people use open source software as inherent part of their practice of openness, and vice versa).
  • The commons are politically potent, in at least two ways: minimally, as existence proof for creativity and innovation in an intellectual freedom respecting regime (carved out); and vastly underappreciated, as destroyer of rents dependent on the intellectual freedom infringing regime, and of resources available for defending those rents and the regime. Commons are not merely to be protected from further bad policy, but are actors in creating a good policy environment, and should be promoted at every turn.

To be clear, my criticism is not usually a call for more “radical” or “extreme” steps or messages, rather more fulsome and coordinated ones. Admittedly, sometimes it may be hard to tell the difference — and this leads to my doubts:

  • Given that coordination is hard, gaining knowledge is expensive, and optimization path dependent, the entities and movements I criticize may not have room to improve, at least not in the direction I want them to improve in. The cost of making “more fulsome and coordinated” true might be greater than mutual reinforcement and other gains.
  • See the second doubt in the previous section — competition from the commons might be futile. Rather than promoting them at every turn, they should sometimes be held up as victims of bad policy, to be protected, and sometimes hidden from policy discourse.

The first doubt is surely merited, at least for many entities on many issues. For any criticism I have in this space, it makes sense to give the criticized the benefit of the doubt; they know their constraints pretty well, while I’m just making abstract speculations. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to call for more fulsome and coordinated strategy in the interstices of these movements, e.g., conversation and even this blog, in the hope of long-term learning, played out over years in existing entities and movements, and new ones. I will try henceforth to do so more often in a “big picture” way, or through example, and less often through criticism of specific choices made by specific entities — in retrospect the stream of the latter on this blog over the last year has been tedious.

International Apartheid

For example: Abolish Foreignness, Do we have any scrap of evidence that [the Chinese Exclusion Act] made us better off?, and Opposing “illegal” immigration is xenophobic, or more bluntly, advocating for apartheid “because it’s the law”. I hinted at a subtheme about the role of cities, to be filled out later.

The system is grossly unjust and ought be abolished, about that I have no doubt. Existing institutions and arrangements must adapt. But, two doubts about my approach:

  • Too little expression of empathy with those who assume the goodness of current policy. Fear of change, competition, “other” are all deep. Too little about how current unjust system can be unwound in a way the mitigates any reality behind these fears. Too little about how benefits attributed to current unjust system can be maintained under a freedom respecting regime. (This doubt also applies to the intellectual freedom theme.)
  • Figuring out development might be more feasible, and certainly would have more impact on human welfare, individual autonomy, than smashing the international apartheid system. Local improvements to education, business, governance, are what all ought focus on — though development economics has a dismal record, it at least has the right target. Migration is a sideshow.

As with the intellectual freedom theme, these doubts merit engagement, and such will strengthen the case for freedom. But even moreso than in the case of intellectual freedom infringing regimes, the unconscionable and murderous injustice of the international apartheid regime must be condemned from the rooftops. It is sickening and unproductive to allow discourse on this topic to proceed as if the regime is anything but an abomination, however unfeasible its destruction may seem in the short term.


Although much of what I write here can be deemed political, one political theme not subsumed by others is inadequate self-regulation of the government “market”, e.g., What to do about democratically elected terrorist regimes, Suppose they gave a war on terror and a few exposed it as terror, and Why does the U.S. federal government permit negative sum competition among U.S. states and localities?

The main problem with this theme is omission rather than doubt — no solutions proposed. Had I done so, I’d have plenty to doubt.


I fell behind, doing refuting only posts from first and second quarters of 2005. My doubt about this enjoyable exercise is that it is too contrived. Many of the refutations are flippant and don’t reflect any real doubts or knowledge gained in the last 8 years. That doubt is what led me to the exercise of this post. How did I do?

Clubbing out of the vicious circle of bad policy (patents)

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Glyn Moody in Defensive Patent Licence: Nice Idea; Not Much Use:

The rest of Linksvayer’s thoughtful post explores these ideas and their background, and in particular looks at how they fit with other aspects of free software.

My fascinating post (thanks).

It’s well worth reading, even if the DPL itself is likely to have relatively little impact. That’s because it only applies to those who join the DPL club, which creates a typical vicious circle: few entities in the club to start with mean that few patents are made available on an royalty-free basis, and so there’s little incentive for more entities to join.

The vicious cycle can be overcome. Joining the club is very low barrier: gratis, and an entity doesn’t even have to hold any patents. Royalty-free patents from club members is only part of the reason for joining. Another is expression — taking advantage of the patent skepticism of many people, and exploiting for ethical branding and recruitment. These patent pool and expressive incentives could be mutually re-enforcing: the more entities join, the larger the pool, and the stronger the expectation that non-evil entities join.

Whether the vicious cycle will be overcome comes down to sales. The DPL people have put in place a lot of groundwork that will help — seemingly a large amount of work by credible people into making the DPL a robust legal instrument, a credible group of people as advisors (and presumably an impressive board when it reaches that stage), presumably some amount of funding. This combination of gravitas and resources would make it possible for a tireless campaigner (the pre-conditions do remind me of Creative Commons, whose tireless campaigner was Lawrence Lessig) or sales team befitting the target market to succeed in getting lots of entities to join the club.

One indicator after the DPL’s public launch next month will be whether the next columns and stories by journalists continue to focus on the barrier of lack of network effects, or on celebrating early joiners and urging other entities to follow as an urgent matter of public policy or industry best practice. This will be an indicator in large part because the DPL people’s efforts right now can shape these stories.

Still, it’s nice to see people thinking innovatively in this space as we work towards the ultimate goal of full abolition of software patents everywhere.

Indeed, though the DPL applies to all patents, and all patents everywhere should be fully abolished, as I’m pretty sure Moody agrees (but probably not the DPL people; that’s OK, they made a useful tool).

You can attend the DPL launch conference in Berkeley: February 28November 7, 2014, gratis registration. Your organization should join the club, now!

Video of the DPL birthday is up on the Internet Archive.

Happy GNU Year & Public Domain Day

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014
happy gnu year and public domain day

Any previous combinations? Reminded of GNU year greetings by Laurel Russwurm and Public Domain Day by the Public Domain Review and Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

My previous Public Domain Day posts:

Echoing the 2011 entry, I recently urged all to upgrade to CC0 (a public domain dedication and license). Also, January 1 is a good date to reiterate:

Unless stated otherwise, everything by me, Mike Linksvayer, published anywhere, is hereby placed in the public domain.

Join me. More importantly, unless you’re prodigious, demand that at the very least all government material go directly into the public domain.

The bottom part of the image is from The Gnoo (1804) by Samuel Daniell (1775-1811). The top is from an illustration (1883) by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel (1851-1913). Latter selected because it is newly unambiguously in the public domain worldwide, including Mexico, which has life + 100 years of restriction. It would not be shocking to see this term ratchet worldwide in the next years.

Bonus links: