Post Creative Commons

Call for mini-essays on “the cost of freedom” in free knowledge movements in honor of Bassel Khartabil

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Dear friends,

I’m helping organize a book titled “The Cost of Freedom” in honor of Bassel Khartabil, a contributor to numerous free/open knowledge projects worldwide and in Syria, where he’s been a political prisoner since 2012, missing and in grave danger since October 3. You can read about Bassel at and lots more at and

Much of the book is going to be created at a face-to-face Book Sprint in Marseille Nov 2-6; some info about that and the theme/title generally at

We’re also asking people like yourself who have been fighting in the trenches of various free knowledge movements (culture, software, science, etc.) to contribute brief essays for inclusion in the book. One form an essay might take is a paragraph on each of:

* An issue you’ve faced that was challenging to you in your free knowledge work, through the lens on “cost”; perhaps a career or time opportunity cost, or the cost of dealing with unwelcoming or worse participants, or the cost of “peeling off layer upon layer the proprietary way of life” as put in
* How you addressed this challenge, or perhaps have yet to do so completely
* Advice to someone starting out in free knowledge; perhaps along the lines of had you understood the costs, what would you have done differently

But feel free to be maximally creative within the theme. We don’t have a minimum or a maximum required length for contributed essays, but especially do not be shy about concision or form. If all we get is haiku that might be a problem, or there might be a message in that of some sort.

Other details: The book will be PUBLISHED on Nov 6. We need your contribution no later than the end of Nov 3 UTCThursday, Nov 5 at 11:00 UTC (Paris: noon; New York: 6AM; Tokyo: 9PM) to be included. The book will be released under CC0; giving up the “right” to sue anyone for any use whatsoever of your contribution is a cost of entry…or one of those proprietary layers to be peeled back. Send contributions to

Feel free to share this with other people who you know have something to say on this topic. We’re especially looking for voices underrepresented in free knowledge movements.


p.s. Please spread the word about #freebassel even if you can’t contribute to the book!

AcaWiki non-summary

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Six years ago I helped launch AcaWiki, a site based on Semantic MediaWiki (software for which I had very high expectations, mostly transferred to Wikidata) for summarizing academic research.

A substantial community failed to materialize. I’ve probably been the only semi-consistent contributor over its entire six years. The best contributions have come from Jodi Schneider, who summarized a bunch of papers related to her research on the semantic web and online discourse, Benjamin Mako Hill, who summarized his PhD qualification exam readings, and Nate Matias who did the same and added a bunch of summaries related to online harassment. Students of an archaeology course taught by Ben Marwick summarized many papers as part of the class. Thank you Jodi, Mako, Nate, Ben, and a bunch of people who have each contributed one or a few summaries.

I’m not going to try to enumerate the deficiencies of AcaWiki here. They boil down to lack of time dedicated to outreach and to improving the site, and zero effort to raise funds to support such work, following a small startup grant obtained by AcaWiki’s founder Neeru Paharia, who has since been busy earning a doctorate and becoming a professor. With Neeru I’ve been the organization’s other long-term director so bear responsibility for this lack of effort. In retrospect dedicating more time to AcaWiki these last years at a cost to non-collaborative activity (e.g., this blog) would have been wise. I haven’t moved to take the other obvious course of shutting down the site, because I still believe something like it is badly needed, not least by me, as I wrote in 2009:

This could be seen as an end-run around access and copyright restrictions (the Open Access movement has made tremendous progress though there is still much to be done), but AcaWiki is a very partial solution to that problem — sometimes an article summary (assuming AcaWiki has one) would be enough, though often a researcher would still need access to the full paper (and the full dataset, but that’s another battle).

More interesting to me is the potential for AcaWiki summaries to increase the impact of research by making it more accessible in another way — comprehensible to non-specialists and approachable by non-speedreaders. I read a fair number of academic papers and many more get left on my reading queue unread. A “human readable” distillation of the key points of articles (abstracts typically convey next to nothing or are filled with jargon) would really let me ingest more.

This has held true even given AcaWiki’s tiny size to date: I regularly look back at summaries I’ve written to remember what I’ve read, and wish I summarized much more of what I’ve read, because most of it I’ve almost totally forgotten! I recommend summarizing papers even though it is hard.

Much harder still and more valuable are literature reviews. These were envisioned to be a part of AcaWiki, but I now think that every Wikipedia article should effectively be a literature review (and more). A year ago I blogged about an example of Wikipedia article as literature review led by James Heilman. Earlier this year Heilman wrote a call to action around a genre of literature review, Open Access to a High-Quality, Impartial, Point-of-Care Medical Summary Would Save Lives: Why Does It Not Exist? (which of course I summarized on AcaWiki). I have a partially written commentary on this piece but for now I can only urge you to read Heilman, or start with and improve my summary.

This brings me to one of my excuses for not dedicating more time to AcaWiki: hope that it would be superseded by a project directly under the Wikimedia umbrella, benefiting from that organization’s and movement’s scale. But, I’ve done almost nothing to make this happen, either. I imagine the current effort that could lead in that direction is WikiProject Open Signalling OA-ness, as I’ve noted at the top of a page on AcaWiki listing similar projects. By far the best project on the list is Journalist’s Resource, also launched in 2009, with vastly greater resources. The projects listed so far as “similar” must only the tip of an iceberg of efforts to summarize academic research, for it’s widely recognized (yes, citation needed; I just created a placeholder on AcaWiki for gathering these) that summarization in various forms is valuable and much more is needed.

If this hasn’t been enough of a ramble already, I’ll close with miscellaneous notes about and unsorted to-dos AcaWiki:

  • Very brief summaries, perhaps 140 character or not much longer, would be useful complements to longer summaries. It would be easy to add a short summary field to AcaWiki.
  • For summaries of articles which are themselves freely licensed, it might be useful to include the author’s abstract in AcaWiki. Again, it would be easy to add a field.
  • There’s lots of research on automated summarization, some of it producing open source tools. These could be applied to initialize summaries, either for human summaries, or en masse bot summary creation.
  • I have added a field for an article’s Wikidata identifier. AcaWiki is one of a handful of sites potentially using Wikidata for authority control. There will be many more. But it’d be far more useful to do something with that identifier, most obviously to ingest article metadata from Wikidata and create Wikidata items/push metadata to Wikidata where items corresponding to summarized articles do not exist. I’ve not yet seriously looked into how much of this can be currently accomplished using Wikibase Client.
  • Last month there was debate about a program giving some Wikipedia contributors gratis access to closed academic journals. Does this program help improve Wikipedia as a free resource, or promote non-free literature? It must do some of both; which is the bigger impact on long-term free knowledge outcomes probably depends on one’s perspective. My bias is that improving and promoting free resources is vastly more important than suppressing non-free ones. But I also think that free academic summaries could help in both respects. For Wikipedia readers, a reference with an immediately available summary would be more useful than one without. The summary would also reduce the need to access the original non-free article. AcaWiki in its current state is inadequate, but perhaps the the debate ought motivate more work on free academic summaries, here or elsewhere.
  • Has any closed access publisher freed only article abstracts (including a free license; abstracts are almost always gratis access)? This would be useful to a site like AcaWiki at the least, especially if abstracts were more consistently useful.
  • Should the scope of AcaWiki be explicitly expanded to include summarizing material that is somehow academic but is not in the form of a peer-reviewed paper published in an academic journal? Some of the summaries I’ve contributed are for books or grey literature.
  • Periodically it’s been suggested to change the default license for AcaWiki summaries from CC-BY to CC-BY-SA. I should add updated thoughts at the link.
  • Some time ago in order to put a stop to the creation of spam accounts, I enabled the ConfirmAccount extension, which forces users who want to contribute to fill out an account request form. I admit this is hugely annoying. I have done zero research into it, but I would love to have an extension which auto-enables account creation based on some external authentication and reputation, e.g., Wikimedia wiki accounts or even users followed/subscribed to/endorsed by existing AcaWiki users on other sites, e.g., social networks.
  • Upgrade site to https when Let’s Encrypt becomes generally available. Alternatively, see if it is possible to move hosting (currently a $10/month Digital Ocean VPS) to Miraheze, which mandates https.
  • I intended to write an update on AcaWiki for Open Access Week (October 19-25). I only realized after beginning that AcaWiki was recently 6 years old.
  • I’m going to ping the people who have contributed to AcaWiki so far to look at this post and provide feedback. What would it take for them to feel good about recommending others do what they’ve done, e.g., summarizing PhD or research program readers, or assigning contributing or improving AcaWiki summaries to their classes? Or if something else entirely should be done to push forward free summarization of academic literature, what is that something?
  • For some time Fabricatorz did a bit of work on and hosted AcaWiki. From my email correspondence I see that Bassel Khartabil did some of that. As I’ve blogged before (1, 2, 3), Bassel has been detained by the Syrian government since 2012. Recently he has gone missing and presumably is in grave danger. Props to his Frabricatorz and many other friends who have done more to raise awareness of Bassel’s plight than I would have imagined possible when writing those previous posts. See for info and links, and spread the word. I’ll add a note about #freebassel to the AcaWiki home page (which badly needs a general revamp) shortly.

If any of this interests you, get in touch or merely watch for updates on the acawiki-general mailing list, AcaWiki on, Twitter, or Facebook, or blog comments below, or the AcaWiki site.

Lessig is the most patriotic candidate

Monday, October 12th, 2015

Almost always for me ‘patriot’ is a term of derision, but here I mean something specific: putting one’s preferred issues and interests to the side to focus on fixing the relevant institutions, in this case of the state. To make the state stronger (as in less degenerate, not necessarily huger). To make collective action work better. To steer the system away from N-party competitive distribution of public spoils by fixing the system rather than blaming particular groups of outsiders or insiders (i.e., what usually passes as ‘patriotic’).

By that specific meaning, Lawrence Lessig is by far the most patriotic candidate for U.S. temporary dictator. I hope he gets into more polls (and prediction markets) and the debates. In Republic, Lost (2011; pdf; my notes on the book below) Lessig evaluates the chances of a presidential campaign like the one he is running: “Let’s be wildly optimistic: 2 percent.” That sounds fair, but the campaign still makes sense, for building name recognition for a future campaign or for injecting non-atavistic patriotism into the debate (so let him).

The campaign worked on me in the sense that it motivated me to read Republic, Lost (which had been in my virtual ‘fullness of time’ pile). I hadn’t followed Lessig’s anti-corruption efforts closely because I was burned out from working for him at Creative Commons and based on headlines, they looked like a turbocharged version: grand and good basic ideas (roughly fixing knowledge regulation and fixing democracy, respectively), politician-like (now actual politician) total campaigning (both for money and to convince the public; in the short term the free culture movement is surely poorer in both respects relative to a world in which Lessig did not shift focus), and constant startup-like pivoting and gimmicks that seemed to me distractions from the grand and good ideas (but no doubt to him are essential innovations). There are many reasons Creative Commons was not a venue ripe for experimentation, and it seems to (I’m barely involved anymore) have mostly settled into doing something close to commons coordination work I believe it is most suited to, including work on license interoperability and supporting open policy. But in hindsight a venue or series of them (cf. Change Congress, Fix Congress First, Mayday.US, NHRebellion, RootStrikers…) built for experimentation might have made for a more contribution to the [semi]free culture world than did a conservatism-inducing (appropriately) license steward (of which there were already plenty). All of which is to say that I’m looking charitably upon Lessig’s many political experiments, including the various novel aspects of his current campaign, though I can understand how they (the means, not the ends of fixing democracy) could be interpreted as gimmicks.

One of my takeaways from Republic, Lost is that the referendum candidacy (Lessig intends to resign after passing one bill, making his candidacy a referendum for that bill) is sort of an anti-gimmick, a credible commitment mechanism, without which any candidate’s calls for changing the system ought be interpreted as hot air. In the book Lessig expresses deep disappointment with Obama, who ran promising fundamental change, which he then failed to deliver or even really attempt, with the consequence of corrupting the non-system-changing reforms he has pushed through (e.g., health care reform contains massive giveaways to drug and insurance industries).

Experimentation with novel commitment mechanisms and anti-gimmicks is great, so I heartily applaud Lessig’s referendum candidacy. But so far it seems to have backfired: the anti-gimmick is interpreted as a gimmick and (not sure if following has been mentioned in press, but is usual response from friends I’ve mentioned the campaign to) the commitment is not taken as credible: it’s still just a politician’s (worthless) promise, power would go to his head, exigencies would intervene, or even if none of this is true, the bill would never pass. On the last bit, Lessig argues that if he won as a referendum candidate, members of Congress would understand the electorate was making an extraordinary demand and pass the bill — they want to be re-elected. Sounds reasonable to me, given the extraordinary circumstance of Lessig being elected without deviation from his referendum platform. The extraordinary circumstance that election would be also seems to me to mitigate the other objections, though less so.

Speaking of power head trips, what about the problem of executive power (thus my preference for calling the U.S. presidency a temporary dictatorship)? Abuse and non-reform thereof has been my biggest disappointment with the Obama administration. I can only recall an indirect mention in Republic, Lost: Congressional deliberation is now rare in part due to members’ need to constantly fundraise, thus, according to a quoted former member, Congress is “failing to live up to its historic role of conducting oversight of the Executive Branch” and “[N]o one today could make a coherent argument that the Congress is the co-equal branch of government the Founders intended it to be.” It does seem totally reasonable that if Congress is non-functional and dependent on concentrated money, the executive branch would also be able to cultivate Congress’ dependency (Lessig does a good job of explaining his use of this term early in the book) and thus thwart Congress as an effective regulator of executive power. I wish Republic, Lost had more on the relationship of Congress and the executive, and related, on Congress and the military/foreign policy/state security complex. To what extent does concentrated money from military contractors, “legislative subsidy” (motivated analysis; a less distracted Congress might make such less needed to the extent it is benign and easier to defend against to the extent it is not) from contractors and the military itself make Congress less able to regulate and indeed eager to go along with disastrous and criminal militarism?

What if politicians could and regularly did make credible commitments to upholding their promises? If the mechanism were not novel and the promises reasonable, perception of gimmickry would largely go away. So would the need for the novelty of a referendum candidacy with a promise of resignation: the referendum would be built in, resignation would be required when a candidate does not uphold their promises, not when they do. Could a stronger commitment be made by a candidate now, without any changes to the law? Would a contract with an intermediary, perhaps a non-profit existing only to enforce candidate promises made to it, be upheld? If politicians upholding their promises is a good thing, shouldn’t a commitment mechanism be built into the law?

Assume for a moment that it would be good for government institutions to make candidate promises enforceable (optionally; a candidate could still make all the hot air promises they wished). We can’t have that reform until the system “rigged” (a term Lessig uses in his campaign, but not appearing in the book) by the need to fundraise from concentrated interests is fixed, because we can’t have any reform until the system is fixed, at least not any reform that isn’t corrupted by having to survive the rigged system. Is it the case that concentrated money in elections is the essential rigging that must be removed before good progress on any other issue can be obtained?

Lessig does make a very good case that dependency of politicians on concentrated money interests is a problem. Three points (among many) stood out to me. First, at the least politicians must spend a huge portion of their time fundraising, making them distracted, relatively ignorant (having to be fundraising rather than studying or discussing issues), and I’d imagine relatively stupid (selection for fundraising tolerance and ability, driving out other qualities). Second, we often go through great lengths to ensure judges are removed from cases in which they have even an appearance of conflict — shouldn’t we want to isolate law makers from even the appearance of corruption just as much, if not more? (Does this not suggest a different reform: bar legislators from any vote in which any impacted party has donated above some very small amount to the legislator’s campaigns?) Third, academic literature on the influence of money in legislative outcomes tends to find little. Lessig argues that this literature is looking for keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is — it’s easy to look at roll call votes, but almost all of the action is in determining what legislation makes it to a vote.

Intuitively the effect of dependence on concentrated money on agenda setting and thus outcomes ought be large. Is there any literature attempting to characterize how large? I didn’t notice any pointers to such in Rebpublic, Lost, but may have missed them. A comment made late in a forum on Subsidizing Democracy: Can Public Financing Change Politics? indicates that the empirical work hasn’t been done yet, at least not through the lens of the impact on outcomes of various forms of public financing of U.S. state legislature campaigns. But public financing does seem to have big impacts on legislator time dedicated to fundraising, time spent talking to potential voters, and who runs and is elected.

Vying with the brief contrast of demands for independence of judges and legislators for the most valuable portion of Republic, Lost is a brief mention with supporting footnote of U.S. state legislative campaign public funding reforms, particularly in Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine:

Over the past fifteen years, three states have experimented with reforms that come very close to this idea. Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut have all adopted reforms for their own state government that permits members of the legislature (and of some statewide offices) to fund their campaigns through small-dollar contributions only. Though the details of these programs are different, the basic structure of all three is the same: candidates qualify by raising a large number of small contributions; once qualified, the candidates receive funding from the state to run their campaigns.

References about these, include one by Michael G. Miller, author of Subsidizing Democracy (2014). I haven’t read this book, but I did find a recording of a forum on the book held at New America Foundation, which I recommend — the other commentators provide valuable context and critique.

Spencer Overton’s comments, starting at about 30 minutes, seem to give an overview of leading thinking on campaign finance, in particular three points. First money in politics is not the problem, dependency on concentrated money is, therefore subsidizing small contributions in exchange for opting to accept limits on large contributions is a solution (note this reform steers clear of reasonable free speech objections to simply banning concentrated money). Second, mitigating corruption is a good outcome of such a solution, but increasing citizen engagement in politics is another good outcome. I’m fairly certain Lessig would be in strong agreement with these first two points; he mentions Overton’s work on “participation interest” in Republic, Lost. Third, states (and cities, e.g., NYC) are learning from and improving their reforms: the impacts on candidate and legislator behavior studied by Miller (primarily in Arizona, if I understand correctly) are based on reforms which are being improved. Overton in particular mentioned the value of matching small donations on an ongoing basis rather than only using small donations to qualify for a lump subsidy (note this would make the reforms much more similar to Lessig’s proposal).

The mention of U.S. state reforms is in the “strategies” section of Republic, Lost, in a description of the first strategy: simply getting Congress to pass a reform similar to those already passed in a few states. Lessig dismisses this strategy because lobbyists are a concentrated interest standing in its way. I’m not convinced by the dismissal for three reasons. First, aren’t state level reforms an existence proof? Lobbyists exist at the state level and are a potential interest group. Second, just how concentrated is the interest of lobbyists qua lobbyists? They are paid to represent various concentrated interests, but how well do they support the Association of Government Relations Professionals, renamed in 2013 from the American League of Lobbyists? Do lobbyists as a class suffer from all the usual collective action problems? Admittedly, to the extent they do form a coherent interest group, they do know just how to be effective. Third, can’t success at the state and local level drive cultural change (especially if reforms obtain demonstrably improved outcomes, but even if not they change the culture of the farm team for Congress and eventually Congress, by removing selection pressure for tolerance of and skill at fundraising), making passing a bill in Congress even against lobbying interests more feasible? This path does not have the urgency of a national campaign, but by Lessig’s own estimates such urgency is nearly hopeless, e.g., as mentioned above “wildly optimistic: 2 percent” for a presidential campaign.

Regardless of whether he favored a long-term state and local innovation driven strategy, I wish Lessig had written more about state and local reforms in order to make the case that concentrated money is a problem more concrete and less intuitive and that reforms similar to ones he proposes make the sort of essential difference that he claims (changed state outcomes could help demonstrate both things). Perhaps there was not enough experience with state and local reforms that de-concentrated and added money to campaigns to say much about them in Repbulic, Lost (2011), but is that still the case in the current campaign? I also would have and would appreciate some analysis of the impact of various campaign financing regimes around the world on the campaigns, composition, behavior, and outcomes of legislatures. The sole contemporary non-U.S. legislature mentioned in Republic, Lost is the UK House of Commons, which often deliberates as a body, unlike the U.S. Congress. Is this an outcome of different campaign financing? Lessig doesn’t say. Yes cross-country comparisons are fraught but surely some would be helpful in characterizing the size of the problem of concentrated money and the potential impact of reform.

While I’m on the “strategies” section of Republic, Lost, a few notes on the other three proposed. Recall the first (discussed above) is passing a bill in the U.S. Congress, dubbed “The Conventional Game”. The second is “An Unconventional (Primary) Game” strikes me as classic Lessig — it involves getting celebrities on board (each celebrity would contest primaries for U.S. Congress in multiple districts), and I don’t quite get it. He gives it a “wildly optimistic: 5 percent” chance of working. With that caveat, and a reminder to myself about taking these proposals charitably, it is a creative proposal at the least. I suppose it could be thought of as a way to turn a legislative primary election season into a referendum on a single issue. Crucially for the single issue of campaign finance reform, without the cooperation of incumbents fit for the current system, or as Lessig writes, it would be a strategy of “peaceful terrorism” on such incumbents.

The third strategy is “An Unconventional Presidential Game”, which the current Lessig campaign seems to be following closely.

The fourth strategy is “The Convention Game”:

A platform for pushing states to call for a federal convention would begin by launching as many shadow conventions as is possible. In schools, in universities—wherever such deliberation among citizens could occur. The results of those shadow conventions would be collected, and posted, and made available for critique. And as they demonstrated their own sensibility, they would support the push for states to call upon Congress to remove the shadow from these conventions. Congress would then constitute a federal convention. That convention—if my bet proves correct—would be populated by a random selection of citizens drawn from the voter rolls. That convention would then meet, deliberate, and propose new amendments to the Constitution. Congress would refer those amendments out to the states for their ratification.

In the book, this strategy seems to be where Lessig’s heart is. He gives it “with enough entrepreneurial state representatives” a “10 percent at a minimum” chance of success. A constitutional convention brings up all kinds of arguments; I recommend reading the chapter in Republic, Lost. I include it in this post for completeness, for its reliance on entrepreneurial state representatives (the long-term “conventional game” also does, see above), and most of all for its inclusion of — sortition (random selection)! That is my preferred reform for choosing legislators (and indirectly, executives, including national temporary dictators), removing not only dependence on concentrated money, but dependence on campaigning, which surely also has a strong selection effect, for tolerance of and skill at campaigning, against other qualities. But much like range voting, land value taxation, and prediction markets (and others; let’s see how the new thing, quadratic voting, fares), sortition’s real world use is about the inverse of its theoretical beauty (dependencies at odds with apparent objectives or corruption broadly conceived is probably a big part of the story for each, example; note similarity to my question about broad conceptions of commoning). Oh well. Perhaps de-concentrating money in political campaigns is a first step toward more ideal institutions.

But is it the essential first step claimed by Lessig, before which no other reform can go forward uncorrupted?

In Republic, Lost Lessig does a decent job of turning stereotypical left and right objections into arguments that de-concentrating money in political campaigns is the essential first step. The left objection is that wealth inequality must be addressed first; without doing so the wealthy will always find ways to rig the system in their favor. Turn: you can’t expect to achieve wealth redistribution when the system is rigged by concentrated money from the wealthy. The right objection is that the essential problem is that government is doing too much; reduce the size and scope of government first, then its remaining essential functions (if any) can run like Swiss clockwork. Turn: you can’t expect to reduce the size and scope of government when the system is rigged by concentrated money protecting every grotesque program. I don’t expect these turns will convince many of those strongly convinced that the essential problem is wealth inequality or big government. In small part because it’s not entirely clear, as for lobbyists, that “the wealthy” or “big government” constitute concentrated interests able to use the rigged system to protect themselves from what a dream crisis or candidate of the left or right would do to them. Rather, there are a bunch of different concentrated interests that probably tend to increase upward wealth redistribution and the size of government. Systematic reform would mitigate these tendencies but from the left or right perspective is not ‘striking at the root’ and does not have the feel of urgency of a dream crisis or candidate. If a referendum candidate is an effective vehicle, why not one who promises to hack at the rich or at government, then resign? But for the not entirely committed, perhaps de-concentrating money in political campaigns can be made to seem a good first step, possibly an essential non-revolutionary (that is, not a catastrophic invitation to trolls) strategy.

Another objection to de-concentration of money in political campaigns as the essential first step is lots that ought be construed as reform is not dependent on elected legislatures. Much does not go directly through government. Everything from organizations to culture to interpersonal relationships all have scope for independent reform, which happens all the time. As do other organs of government such as courts and administration. These objections could be turned to apologia for the primacy of de-concentration of money in political campaigns. They explain why one can perceive good reform happening (e.g., marriage equality) when Lessig tells us no good reform is possible until campaign finance is reformed. These independent sources of reform mask just what a poor job the U.S. Congress does. Clearly lots of important reform is dependent on action by the U.S. Congress, and any such reform is wholly blocked or corrupted by having to survive a U.S. Congress dependent on concentrated money, which meanwhile also passes all kinds of anti-reform.

There are numerous reforms which would reduce corruption, capture, and inappropriate dependency which could be taken as objections to campaign finance reform as the essential first reform, or buttress the argument for it, depending on their dependence on a U.S. Congress dependent on fundraising from concentrated money. The Scourge of Upward Redistribution, a recent article by Steven Teles, surveys a number of such reforms, which tend to give regulatory decision makers more resources and push regulatory decisions into more accessible venues, making decisions less dependent on and controlled by concentrated interests. The control is not just about venue, but imagination: broader participation in regulatory decision making could reduce “cognitive capture” or “cultural capture”. (Needless to say all of these reforms have great intuitive appeal, but like campaign finance reforms, cry out for evidence from where similar are now implemented.) Teles does not mention campaign finance reform at all. I wondered whether this was a critique by omission, and found A New Agenda for Political Reform by Teles and Lee Drutman. They consider attempts to get money out of politics and increase participation to have largely failed and to have poor prospects, and argue the essential reform is to give the U.S. Congress more resources. Conclusion:

Convincing Congress, especially this Congress, to invest in its own staff capacity clearly won’t be easy. But neither is it inconceivable. Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community. For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies.

In Republic, Lost Lessig mentions many of the reforms that Teles writes about, and clearly considers dependence on fundraising concentrated money to be the essential blocker and first reform. I don’t know which is “right”. They largely see the same problems of a government controlled by concentrated interests. To the charge of failure and poor prospects above, I imagine that people like Lessig and Overton would respond that they have moved beyond getting money out of politics to getting more diverse money into politics, and beyond getting people to vote and somehow pay attention to getting them to feel more committed through making small and well matched donations. Presumably both sets of reforms are complementary, except to the extent they compete for reform attention.

This brings us to why I don’t like the referendum candidacy, where the referendum aims to fix the “rigged” system, and the referendum candidate resigns as soon as the bill intended to fix the system is passed. Many reforms are needed to fix the system, including those mentioned by Teles, and probably a selection of reforms favored by people who are committed to reducing wealth inequality as well as the power of government in some dimensions. In order to make the first reform resilient, further strengthening of governing and regulating institutions will have to be made, and the context of inequality and arbitrary power changed. Cursory reading of histories of empires in periods of decline show patriotic (in the sense described at the top) reform attempts, occasionally met with a bit of success, but quickly lost. Why would the American empire be any different? There’s no reason to think it might be other than patriotic (in the bad sense) delusion. If a candidate like Lessig were to get a mandate for reform, I’d want them to see it through. Passing one bill to de-concentrate campaign funding might be the necessary first reform, but I can’t see it being sufficient even to ensure the survival of itself, uncorrupted.

The Lessig referendum candidacy’s one bill includes more than a measure to de-concentrate campaign funding though. This measure is bundled with two others (voting rights and election method and districting reforms) under the name Citizen Equality Act. There is perhaps a hint of this in Republic, Lost, where equality of voting is mentioned, but in contrast to the inequality of campaign funding rather than as something needing reform. Now surely there are useful reforms to be made in these areas which would get closer to every voter having equal weight, in terms of access to voting and impact of their votes. But what happened to the one essential reform that must happen before any other than be achieved, uncorrupted? It’s there of course, but why have it share the focus with two good but non-blocking reforms? Here’s what I imagine: concern about inequality bubbles to the top of mainstream discourse, Lessig thinks that he’s got to connect with the equality movement, and comes up with the brand and bundling of “Citizen Equality”. Or maybe campaign finance reform was deemed to be not enough to base on referendum candidacy on, even though it is claimed to be the essential first reform. I have no idea how the Citizen Equality idea came about…but maybe it is a good one. Anti-corruption measures, especially as Lessig defines corruption, seem to largely be consequentialist: we can’t get nice things from a corrupt system (and if one is not careful, anti-corruption measures can be rights violating, even if they achieve good things on net). Voter equality measures on the other hand, seem largely to be about rights: the rights of individual voters, and the ability of minority groups to have a voice through the ballot and protect their rights from the majority. I imagine (surely this is something that has been studied in depth, but I am ignorant) that consequence and rights arguments appeal differently to different voters; a proposal which appeal to both could have better chances of acceptance.

Before closing I have to comment on a few bits pertinent to knowledge policy found in Republic, Lost:

Consider, for example, the case of movies. Imagine a blockbuster Hollywood feature that costs $20 million to make. Once a single copy of this film is in digital form, the Internet guarantees that millions of copies could be accessed in a matter of minutes. Those “extra” copies are the physical manifestation of the positive externality that a film creates. The value or content of that film can be shared easily—insanely easily—given the magic of “the Internets.”

That ease of sharing creates risk of underproduction for such creative work: If the only way that this film can be made is for the company making it to get paid by those who watch it, or distribute it, then without some effective way to make sure that those who make copies pay for those copies, we’re not going to get many of those films made. That’s not to say we won’t get any films made. There are plenty of films that don’t exist for profit. Government propaganda is one example. Safety films that teach employees at slaughterhouses how to use dangerous equipment is another.

But if you’re like me, and want to watch Hollywood films more than government propaganda (and certainly more than safety films), you might well be keen to figure out how we can ensure that more of the former get made, even if we must suffer too much of the latter.

The answer is copyright—or, more precisely, an effective system of copyright. Copyright law gives the creator of a film (and other art forms) the legal right to control who makes copies of it, who can distribute it, who displays it publicly, and so forth. By giving the creator that power, the creator can then set the price he or she wants. If the system is effective, that price is respected—the only people who can get the film are the people who pay for it. The creator can thus get the return she wants in exchange for creating the film. We would be a poorer culture if copyright didn’t give artists and authors a return for their creativity.

I realize this just serves as an example in the context of Republic, Lost, but it’s an appallingly bad one. What risk of underproduction? What does that even mean in the context of entertainment? People love whatever culture they’re immersed in. Individuals have limited attention, massively over-saturated by a huge market. Private tax collection by copyright holders is not the only way to get films made; film making is hugely subsidized (even in the U.S., through location rent seeking), those subsidies could obtain films not subject to private enforcement of speech restrictions. Safety films and government propaganda as the examples of what would be produced without copyright? For government (in particular military/security state) propaganda — watch Hollywood. When not under the influence of offering explanations of how Hollywood blockbusters justify copyright, Lessig and the like celebrate the extraordinary creativity of non-commercial video artists of many forms, uploading countless hours of film superior to safety instruction and propaganda videos. Now presumably there would be many fewer Hollywood-style blockbusters without copyright (incidentally I think a zero was left off the cost figure in the quote, though much of that may be marketing). But a poorer culture? A somewhat different culture, certainly — one in which private censors are not empowered to damage the net, one in which monopoly knowledge rents do not concentrate cultural power, increase wealth inequality, and exclude the poorest from access to knowledge. I don’t expect Lessig to become a copyright abolitionist, and in any case think it is far more useful to advocate for commons-favoring policy than against copyright. But granting the commanding heights of culture wholesale to the copyright industry and narrowing the vision of what the commons can produce is no way to argue for any sort of reform, other than the sort the copyright industry wants.

Elsewhere in the book:

As with any speech regulation, the first question is whether there are other, less restrictive means of achieving the same legislative end. So if Congress could avoid dependence corruption by, say, funding elections publicly, that alternative would weaken any ability to justify speech restrictions to the same end. The objective should always be to achieve the legitimate objectives of the nation without restricting speech.

Apply this to the ends of entertainment production.

This seems like a good juncture to mention a related question: why not free political speech from private censorship? All political speech (by some definition, preferably all speech…but presumably speech paid for by campaign contributions) should be in the public domain. I doubt this would have any significant impact on campaigns or fundraising, but more freedom of speech, especially political speech, seems independently worthy.

A briefer and less bad mention of patents:

Those patents are necessary (so long as drug research is privately financed), but there has long been a debate about whether they get granted too easily, or whether “me-too” drugs get protection unnecessarily.

This seems to be another odd case in which an writer grants more necessity to copyright for entertainment production and less imagination for an alternative than for patents and drug development. Though I’m glad to see the parenthetical above (of course it ought be noted that public money already pays for much of the research, and buys much of the product…), I find the ordering bizarre. The piece I’ve seen similar but even more pronounced recently in is Teles’ The Scourge of Upward Redistribution!

From the “Conventional Game” and “Choosing Strategies” chapters:

These four reasons all point to a common lesson in the history of warfare: You don’t beat the British by lining up in red coats and marching on their lines, as they would on you. You beat them by adopting a strategy they’ve never met, or never played. The forces that would block this bill work well and effectively on Capitol Hill, and inside the Beltway. That is their home. And if we’re going to seize their home, and dismantle it, we need a strategy that they’re sure is going to fail. Yet we need it to win.

Insurgent movements have to fight the war on unconventional turf. If the issue gets decided finally within institutions that depend upon things staying the same, things will stay the same. But if we can move the battle outside the Beltway, to venues where the status quo has no natural advantage, then even small forces can effect big change.

These are exactly why in the space of knowledge policy that commons-based products and commons-favoring policy are so potent, and ought be taken as the primary mechanism of knowledge policy reform. Uncorrupted direct reform of copyright and patents (the standard menu includes things like reducing term lengths and increasing ‘quality’) probably is hopeless without de-concentrating funding of political campaigns (or whatever anti-corruption measure turns out to be the essential first step). Good luck to Lessig. In the meantime, knowledge commons can slowly (far too slowly now, I admit) change the structure of the knowledge economy, create concentrated interests that benefit from commons-favoring policy, and increase policy imagination for what is possible without intellectual property.

I started off claiming that Lessig is the most patriotic candidate for U.S. temporary dictator because he’s the only one putting his preferred issues to the side to fix the institutions of government and make collective action work better. But I have to admit that jingoist patriots (those with some patience anyway) ought also favor Lessig, because those are the qualities that give a nation the capacity to dominate others over the long term, if its constituents have such ugly desires.

Hello World Intellectual Freedom Organization

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

Today I’m soft launching an initiative that I’ve been thinking about for 20 years, obtained a domain name for in 1998, blogged about once in 2004, and the last few years have been exploring on this blog without naming it. See the first items in my annual thematic doubt posts for 2013 and 2014: “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.”

I call it the World Intellectual Freedom Organization (WIFO).

Read about its theory, why a new organization, proposed activities, and how you can help/get involved.

Why today? Because April 26 is World Intellectual Freedom Day, occupying and displacing World Intellectual Property Day, just as intellectual freedom must occupy and displace intellectual property for a good future. Consider this 0th World Intellectual Freedom Day another small step forward, following last year’s Without Intellectual Property Day.

Why a soft launch? Because I’m eager to be public about WIFO, but there’s tons of work to do before it can properly be considered launched. I’ve been getting feedback from a handful of people on a quasi-open fellowship proposal for WIFO (that’s where the activities link above points to) and apologize to the many other people I should’ve reached out to. Well, now I’m doing that. I want your help in this project of world liberation!

Video version of my proposal at the Internet Archive or YouTube. My eyes do not lie, I am reading in an attempt to fit too much material in 5 minutes.

I’ll probably blog much less here about “IP” and commons/free/libre/open issues here from now on, especially after opening a WIFO blog (for now there’s a Discourse forum; most of the links above point there). Not to worry, I am overflowing with idiosyncratic takes on everything else, and will continue to post accordingly here, as much as time permits. ☻

Be sure to celebrate the 0th World Intellectual Freedom Day, even if only momentarily and with your lizard brain.

What is the attribution revolution?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 suggested tweet:

I believe in giving and receiving credit for photographs online. Do you? Join the #attributionrevolution –

Down with the romance of authorship and the ideas that credit is due (as suggested at the link) and that information propertization and the legal system are appropriate mechanisms for encouraging credit (as suggested by licenses mentioned in the campaign which condition free speech on providing attribution).

But I support despite a bit of ugly rhetoric in its messaging because the technology is fundamentally about making provenance available on demand — undermining the rationale for consciously giving credit or making lack of explicit credit a cause for legal action.

The real attribution revolution has nothing to do with believing that credit is due anyone, and everything to do with attribution (in multiple senses, but including work-creator relationship identification) becoming inescapable, at least not without great and very careful effort. is the tip of the top of the iceberg of image and other huge databases (in a sense literally: apparently is an open database, while others millions of times larger are opaque, submerged beneath corporate and government seawater) and techniques like deep learning and stylometry make universal attribution not only feasible but seemingly inevitable. I don’t know whether this is on net a good or bad thing — but it is the real attribution revolution.

14 months ago I railed against the attribution condition of some open and semi-open licenses (emphasis added):

Do not take part in the debasement of attribution, and more broadly, provenance, already useful to readers, communities of practice, and publishers, by making them seem mere objects of copyright license compliance. If attribution is useful, it will be provided. If not, robots will find out. Rarely does anyone comply with the exact legal requirements of the attribution term anyway, and as a licensor, you probably won’t provide the information needed by licensees to easily comply. Plus, the corresponding icon looks like a men’s bathroom sign.

The campaign page for example: it does not “include a copy of, or the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) for, this License with every copy of the Work You Distribute or Publicly Perform” nor does it provide “the URI, if any, that Licensor specifies to be associated with the Work, unless such URI does not refer to the copyright notice or licensing information for the Work” — in other words, it names the works it uses and the licenses it uses them under, but does not link to those works and licenses (quotes from CC-BY-3.0).

The other reason I support (yes visit that campaign page, give, and ignore the utter triviality of attribution license non-compliance) is that it is focused on provenance for open works (freely licensed or in the public domain — with caveat that I haven’t checked whether it includes semi-open works) and is itself an open source/open data project — provenance for the commons, and commons for the provenance.

Much more work in this area is needed, especially with a focus on high value open works (e.g. premium video) and creating high value open works — I mean by creating network effects around open works, not creating the works themselves. But even a still image focused project could help a bit — every frame of every open premium video could be included in the database, and any use metrics that can be extracted can be used to document and thus abet popularity.

Libre Graphics World has a long interview with founder Jonas Öberg that is well worth reading. Separately, there is big news not about but very pertinent to (which also perhaps explains why the campaign is only attempting to raise $6,000): Öberg is returning to work at the Free Software Foundation Europe (of which he is a co-founder and will be executive director; I had the pleasure of working with him a bit in between at Creative Commons, where he was European coordinator).

I don’t know the FSFE that well, but my impression is very positive, in particular its engagement in politics as public policy, not only the petite politics of individual developers choosing particular licenses and individual users rejecting proprietary software. Congratulations to Jonas on both the campaign and the FSFE position, and hoping for great success in both. Especially the latter could have an important role in making the real attribution revolution relatively beneficent.

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Last month the Free Software Foundation and Software Freedom Conservancy launched, “a collaborative project to create and disseminate useful information, tutorial material, and new policy ideas regarding all forms of copyleft licensing.” The main feature of the project now is a 157 page tutorial on the GPL which assembles material developed over the past 10 years and a new case study. I agreed to write a first draft of material covering CC-BY-SA, the copyleft license most widely used for non-software works. My quote in the announcement: “I’m glad to bring my knowledge about the Creative Commons copyleft licenses as a contribution to improve further this excellent tutorial text, and I hope that as a whole can more generally become a central location to collect interesting ideas about copyleft policy.”

I tend to offer apologia to copyleft detractors and criticism to copyleft advocates, and cheer whatever improvements to copyleft licenses can be mustered (I hope to eventually write a cheery post about the recent compatibility of CC-BY-SA and the Free Art License), but I’m far more interested in copyleft licenses as prototypes for non-copyright policy.

For now, below is that first draft. It mostly stands alone, but might be merged in pieces as the tutorial is restructured to integrate material about non-GPL and non-software copyleft licenses. Your patches and total rewrites welcome!

Detailed Analysis of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Licenses

This tutorial gives a comprehensive explanation of the most popular free-as-in-freedom copyright licenses for non-software works, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (“CC-BY-SA”, or sometimes just “BY-SA”) – with an emphasis on the current version 4.0 (“CC-BY-SA-4.0”).

Upon completion of this part of the tutorial, readers can expect to have learned the following:

  • The history and role of copyleft licenses for non-software works.
  • The differences between the GPL and CC-BY-SA, especially with respect to copyleft policy.
  • The basic differences between CC-BY-SA versions 1.0, 2.0, 2.5, and 4.0.
  • An understanding of how CC-BY-SA-4.0 implements copyleft.
  • Where to find more resources about CC-BY-SA compliance.

FIXME this list should be more aggressive, but material is not yet present

WARNING: As of November 2014 this part is brand new, and badly needs review, referencing, expansion, error correction, and more.

Freedom as in Free Culture, Documentation, Education…

Critiques of copyright’s role in concentrating power over and making culture inaccessible have existed throughout the history of copyright. Few contemporary arguments about “copyright in the digital age” have not already been made in the 1800s or before. Though one can find the occasional ad hoc “anti-copyright”, “no rights reserved”, or pro-sharing statement accompanying a publication, use of formalized public licenses for non-software works seems to have begun only after the birth of the free software movement and of widespread internet access among elite populations.

Although they have much older antecedents, contemporary movements to create, share, and develop policy encouraging “cultural commons”, “open educational resources”, “open access scientific publication” and more, have all come of age in the last 10-15 years – after the huge impact of free software was unmistakable. Additionally, these movements have tended to emphasize access, with permissions corresponding to the four freedoms of free software and the use of fully free public licenses as good but optional.

It’s hard not to observe that it seems the free software movement arose more or less shortly after as it became desirable (due to changes in the computing industry and software becoming unambiguously subject to copyright in the United States by 1983), but non-software movements for free-as-in-freedom knowledge only arose after they became more or less inevitable, and only begrudgingly at that. Had a free culture “constructed commons” movement been successful prior to the birth of free software, the benefits to computing would have been great – consider the burdens of privileged access to proprietary culture for proprietary software through DRM and other mechanisms, toll access to computer science literature, and development of legal mechanisms and policy through pioneering trial-and-error.

Alas, counterfactual optimism does not change the present – but might embolden our visions of what freedom can be obtained and defended going forward. Copyleft policy will surely continue to be an important and controversial factor, so it’s worth exploring the current version of the most popular copyleft license intended for use with non-software works, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-SA-4.0), the focus of this tutorial.

Free Definitions

When used to filter licenses, the Free Software Definition and Open Source Definition have nearly identical results. For licenses primarily intended for non-software works, the Definition of Free Cultural Works and Open Definition similarly have identical results, both with each other and with the software definitions which they imitate. All copyleft licenses for non-software works must be “free” and “open” per these definitions.

There are various other definitions of “open access”, “open content”, and “open educational resources” which are more subject to interpretation or do not firmly require the equivalent of all four freedoms of the free software definition. While these definitions are not pertinent to circumscribing the concept of copyleft – which is about enforcing all four freedoms, for everyone. But copyleft licenses for non-software works are usually considered “open” per these other definitions, if they are considered at all.

The open access to scientific literature movement, for example, seems to have settled into advocacy for non-copyleft free licenses (CC-BY) on one hand, and acceptance of highly restrictive licenses or access without other permissions on the other. This creates practical problems: for example, nearly all scientific literature either may not be incorporated into Wikipedia (which uses CC-BY-SA) or may not incorporate material developed on Wikipedia – both of which do happen, when the licenses allow it. This tutorial is not the place to propose solutions, but let this problem be a motivator for encouraging more widespread understanding of copyleft policy.

Non-software Copylefts

Copyleft is a compelling concept, so unsurprisingly there have been many attempts to apply it to non-software works – starting with use of GPLv2 for documentation, then occasionally for other texts, and art in various media. Although the GPL was and is perfectly usable for any work subject to copyright, several factors were probably important in preventing it from being the dominant copyleft outside of software:

  • the GPL is clearly intended first as a software license, thus requiring some perspective to think of applying to non-software works;
  • the FSF’s concern is software, and the organization has not strongly advocated for using the GPL for non-software works;
  • further due to the (now previous) importance of its hardcopy publishing business and desire to retain the ability to take legal action against people who might modify its statements of opinion, FSF even developed a non-GPL copyleft license specifically for documentation, the Free Documentation License (FDL; which ceases to be free and thus is not a copyleft if its “invariant sections” and similar features are used);
  • a large cultural gap and lack of population overlap between free software and other movements has limited knowledge transfer and abetted reinvention and relearning;
  • the question of what constitutes source (“preferred form of the work for making modifications”) for many non-software works.

As a result, several copyleft licenses for non-software works were developed, even prior to the existence of Creative Commons. These include the aforementioned FDL (1998), Design Science License (1999), Open Publication License (1999; like the FDL it has non-free options), Free Art License (2000), Open Game License (2000; non-free options), EFF Open Audio License (2001), LinuxTag Green OpenMusic License (2001; non-free options) and the QING Public License (2002). Additionally several copyleft licenses intended for hardware designs were proposed starting in the late 1990s if not sooner (the GPL was then and is now also commonly used for hardware designs, as is now CC-BY-SA).1

At the end of 2002 Creative Commons launched with 11 1.0 licenses and a public domain dedication. The 11 licenses consisted of every non-mutually exclusive combination of at least one of the Attribution (BY), NoDerivatives (ND), NonCommercial (NC), and ShareAlike (SA) conditions (ND and SA are mutually exclusive; NC and ND are non-free). Three of those licenses were free (as was the public domain dedication), two of them copyleft: CC-SA-1.0 and CC-BY-SA-1.0.

Creative Commons licenses with the BY condition were more popular, so the 5 without (including CC-SA) were not included in version 2.0 of the licenses. Although CC-SA had some advocates, all who felt very strongly in favor of free-as-in-freedom, its incompatibility with CC-BY-SA (meaning had CC-SA been widely used, the copyleft pool of works would have been further fragmented) and general feeling that Creative Commons had created too many licenses led copyleft advocates who hoped to leverage Creative Commons to focus on CC-BY-SA.

Creative Commons began with a small amount of funding and notoriety, but its predecessors had almost none (FSF and EFF had both, but their entries were not major focuses of those organizations), so Creative Commons licenses (copyleft and non-copyleft, free and non-free) quickly came to dominate the non-software public licensing space. The author of the Open Publication License came to recommend using Creative Commons licenses, and the EFF declared version 2.0 of the Open Audio License compatible with CC-BY-SA and suggested using the latter. Still, at least one copyleft license for “creative” works was released after Creative Commons launched: the Against DRM License (2006), though it did not achieve wide adoption. Finally a font-specific copyleft license (SIL Open Font License) was introduced in 2005 (again the GPL, with a “font exception”, was and is now also used for fonts).

Although CC-BY-SA was used for licensing “databases” almost from its launch, and still is, copyleft licenses specifically intended to be used for databases were proposed starting from the mid-2000s. The most prominent of those is the Open Database License (ODbL; 2009). As we can see public software licenses following the subjection of software to copyright, interest in public licenses for databases followed the EU database directive mandating “sui generis database rights”, which began to be implemented in member state law starting from 1998. How CC-BY-SA versions address databases is covered below.

Aside on share-alike non-free therefore non-copylefts

Many licenses intended for use with non-software works include the “share-alike” aspect of copyleft: if adaptations are distributed, to comply with the license they must be offered under the same terms. But some (excluding those discussed above) do not grant users the equivalent of all four software freedoms. Such licenses aren’t true copylefts, as they retain a prominent exclusive property right aspect for purposes other than enforcing all four freedoms for everyone. What these licenses create are “semicommons” or mixed private property/commons regimes, as opposed to the commons created by all free licenses, and protected by copyleft licenses. One reason non-free public licenses might be common outside software, but rare for software, is that software more obviously requires ongoing maintenance.2 Without control concentrated through copyright assignment or highly asymmetric contributor license agreements, multi-contributor maintenance quickly creates an “anticommons” – e.g., nobody has adequate rights to use commercially.

These non-free share-alike licenses often aggravate freedom and copyleft advocates as the licenses sound attractive, but typically are confusing, probably do not help and perhaps stymie the cause of freedom. There is an argument that non-free licenses offer conservative artists, publishers, and others the opportunity to take baby steps, and perhaps support better policy when they realize total control is not optimal, or to eventually migrate to free licenses. Unfortunately no rigorous analysis of any of these conjectures exists. The best that can be done might be to promote education about and effective use of free copyleft licenses (as this tutorial aims to do) such that conjectures about the impact of non-free licenses become about as interesting as the precise terms of proprietary software EULAs – demand freedom instead.

In any case, some of these non-free share-alike licenses (also watch out for aforementioned copyleft licenses with non-free and thus non-copyleft options) include: Open Content License (1998), Free Music Public License (2001), LinuxTag Yellow, Red, and Rainbow OpenMusic Licenses (2001), Open Source Music License (2002), Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike and Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Licenses (2002), Common Good Public License (2003), and Peer Production License (2013). CC-BY-NC-SA is by far the most widespread of these, and has been versioned with the other Creative Commons licenses, through the current version 4.0 (2013).

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike

The remainder of this tutorial exclusively concerns the most widespread copyleft license intended for non-software works, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike(CC-BY-SA). But, there are actually many CC-BY-SA licenses – 5 versions (6 if you count version 2.1, a bugfix for a few jurisdiction “porting” mistakes), ports to 60 jurisdictions – 96 distinct CC-BY-SA licenses in total. After describing CC-BY-SA and how it differs from the GPL at a high level, we’ll have an overview of the various CC-BY-SA licenses, then a section-by-section walkthrough of the most current and most clear of them – CC-BY-SA-4.0.

CC-BY-SA allows anyone to share and adapt licensed material, for any purpose, subject to providing credit and releasing adaptations under the same terms. The preceding sentence is a severe abridgement of the “human readable” license summary or “deed” provided by Creative Commons at the canonical URL for one of the CC-BY-SA licenses – the actual license or “legalcode” is a click away. But this abridgement, and the longer the summary provided by Creative Commons are accurate in that they convey CC-BY-SA is a free, copyleft license.

GPL and CC-BY-SA differences

FIXME this section ought refernence GPL portion of tutorial extensively

There are several differences between the GPL and CC-BY-SA that are particularly pertinent to their analysis as copyleft licenses.

The most obvious such difference is that CC-BY-SA does not require offering works in source form, that is their preferred form for making modifications. Thus CC-BY-SA makes a huge tradeoff relative to the GPL – CC-BY-SA dispenses with a whole class of compliance questions which are more ambiguous for some creative works than they are for most software – but in so doing it can be seen as a much weaker copyleft.

Copyleft is sometimes described as a “hack” or “judo move” on copyright, but the GPL makes two moves, though it can be hard to notice they are conceptually different moves, without the contrast provided by a license like CC-BY-SA, which only substantially makes one move. The first move is to neutralize copyright restrictions – adaptations, like the originally licensed work, will effectively not be private property (of course they are subject to copyright, but nobody can exercise that copyright to prevent others’ use). If copyright is a privatized regulatory system (it is), the first move is deregulatory. The second move is regulatory – the GPL requires offer of source form, a requirement that would not hold if copyright disappeared, absent a different regulatory regime which mandated source revelation (one can imagine such a regime on either “pragmatic” grounds, e.g., in the interest of consumer protection, or on the grounds of enforcing software freedom as a universal human right).

FIXME analysis of differences in copyleft scope (eg interplay of derivative works, modified copies, collections, aggregations, containers) would be good here but might be difficult to avoid novel research

CC-BY-SA makes the first move3 but adds the second in a limited fashion. It does not require offer of preferred form for modification nor any variation thereof (e.g., the FDL requires access to a “transparent copy”). CC-BY-SA does prohibit distribution with “effective technical measures” (i.e., digital restrictions management or DRM) if doing so limits the freedoms granted by the license. We can see that this is regulatory because absent copyright and any regime specifically limiting DRM, such distribution would be perfectly legal. Note the GPL does not prohibit distribution with DRM, although its source requirement makes DRM superfluous, and somewhat analogously, of course GPLv3 carefully regulates distribution of GPL’d software with locked-down devices – to put it simply, it requires keys rather than prohibiting locks. Occasionally a freedom advocate will question whether CC-BY-SA’s DRM prohibition makes CC-BY-SA a non-free license. Few if any questioners come down on the side of CC-BY-SA being non-free, perhaps for two reasons: first, overwhelming dislike of DRM, thus granting the possibility that CC-BY-SA’s approach could be appropriate for a license largely used for cultural works; second, the DRM prohibition in CC-BY-SA (and all CC licenses) seems to be mainly expressive – there are no known enforcements, despite the ubiquity of DRM in games, apps, and media which utilize assets under various CC licenses.

Another obvious difference between the GPL and CC-BY-SA is that the former is primarily intended to be used for software, and the latter for cultural works (and, with version 4.0, databases). Although those are the overwhelming majority of uses of each license, there are areas in which both are used, e.g., for hardware design and interactive cultural works, where there is not a dominant copyleft practice or the line between software and non-software is not absolutely clear.

This brings us to the third obvious difference, and provides a reason to mitigate it: the GPL and CC-BY-SA are not compatible, and have slightly different compatibility mechanisms. One cannot mix GPL and CC-BY-SA works in a way that creates a derivative work and comply with either of them. This could change – CC-BY-SA-4.0 introduced4 the possibility of Creative Commons declaring CC-BY-SA-4.0 one-way (as a donor) compatible with another copyleft license – the GPL is obvious candidate for such compatibility. Discussion is expected to begin in late 2014, with a decision sometime in 2015. If this one-way compatibility were to be enacted, one could create an adaptation of a CC-BY-SA work and release the adaptation under the GPL, but not vice-versa – which makes sense given that the GPL is the stronger copyleft.

The GPL has no externally declared compatibility with other licenses mechanism (and note no action from the FSF would be required for CC-BY-SA-4.0 to be made one-way compatible with the GPL). The GPL’s compatibility mechanism for later versions of itself differs from CC-BY-SA’s in two ways: the GPL’s is optional, and allows for use of the licensed work and adaptations under later versions; CC-BY-SA’s is non-optional, but only allows for adaptations under later versions.

Fourth, using slightly different language, the GPL and CC-BY-SA’s coverage of copyright and similar restrictions should be identical for all intents and purposes (GPL explicitly notes “semiconductor mask rights” and CC-BY-SA-4.0 “database rights” but neither excludes any copyright-like restrictions). But on patents, the licenses are rather different. CC-BY-SA-4.0 explicitly does not grant any patent license, while previous versions were silent. GPLv3 has an explicit patent license, while GPLv2’s patent license is implied (see [gpl-implied-patent-grant] and [GPLv3-drm] for details). This difference ought give serious pause to anyone considering use of CC-BY-SA for works potentially subject to patents, especially any potential licensee if CC-BY-SA licensor holds such patents. Fortunately Creative Commons has always strongly advised against using any of its licenses for software, and that advice is usually heeded; but in the space of hardware designs Creative Commons has been silent, and unfortunately from a copyleft (i.e., use mechanisms at disposal to enforce user freedom) perspective, CC-BY-SA is commonly used (all the more reason to enable one-way compatibility, allowing such projects to migrate to the stronger copyleft).

The final obvious difference pertinent to copyleft policy between the GPL and CC-BY-SA is purpose. The GPL’s preamble makes it clear its goal is to guarantee software freedom for all users, and even without the preamble, it is clear that this is the Free Software Foundation’s driving goal. CC-BY-SA (and other CC licenses) state no purpose, and (depending on version) are preceded with a disclaimer and neutral “considerations for” licensors and licensees to think about (the CC0 public domain dedication is somewhat of an exception; it does have a statement of purpose, but even that has more of a feel of expressing yes-I-really-mean-to-do-this than a social mission). Creative Commons has always included elements of merely offering copyright holders additional choices and of purposefully creating a commons. While CC-BY-SA (and initially CC-SA) were just among the 11 non-mutually exclusive combinations of “BY”, “NC”, “ND”, and “SA”, freedom advocates quickly adopted CC-BY-SA as “the” copyleft for non-software works (surpassing previously existing non-software copylefts mentioned above). Creative Commons has at times recognized the special role of CC-BY-SA among its licenses, e.g., in a statement of intent regarding the license made in order to assure Wikimedians considering changing their default license from the FDL to CC-BY-SA that the latter, including its steward, was acceptably aligned with the Wikimedia movement (itself probably more directly aligned with software freedom than any other major non-software commons).

FIXME possibly explain why purpose might be relevant, eg copyleft instrument as totemic expression, norm-setting, idea-spreading

FIXME possibly mention that CC-BY-SA license text is free (CC0)

There are numerous other differences between the GPL and CC-BY-SA that are not particularly interesting for copyleft policy, such as the exact form of attribution and notice, and how license translations are handled. Many of these have changed over the course of CC-BY-SA versioning.

CC-BY-SA versions

FIXME section ought explain jurisdiction ports

This section gives a brief overview of changes across the main versions (1.0, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, and 4.0) of CC-BY-SA, again focused on changes pertinent to copyleft policy. Creative Commons maintains a page detailing all significant changes across versions of all of its CC-BY* licenses, in many cases linking to detailed discussion of individual changes.

As of late 2014, versions 2.0 (the one called “Generic”; there are also 18 jurisdiction ports) and 3.0 (called “Unported”; there are also 39 ports) are by far the most widely used. 2.0 solely because it is the only version that the proprietary web image publishing service Flickr has ever supported. It hosts 27 million CC-BY-SA-2.0 photos 5 and remains the go-to general source for free images (though it may eventually be supplanted by Wikimedia Commons, some new proprietary service, or a federation of free image sharing sites, perhaps powered by GNU MediaGlobin). 3.0 both because it was the current version far longer (2007-2013) than any other and because it has been adopted as the default license for most Wikimedia projects.

However apart from the brief notes on each version, we will focus on 4.0 for a section-by-section walkthrough in the next section, as 4.0 is improved in several ways, including understandability, and should eventually become the most widespread version, both because 4.0 is intended to remain the current version for the indefinite and long future, and it would be reasonable to predict that Wikimedia projects will make CC-BY-SA-4.0 their default license in 2015 or 2016.

FIXME subsections might not be the right strcuture or formatting here

1.0 (2002-12-16)

CC-BY-SA-1.0 set the expectation for future versions. But the most notable copyleft policy feature (apart from the high level differences with GPLv2, such as not requiring source) was no measure for compatibility with future versions (nor with the CC-SA-1.0, also a copyleft license, nor with pre-existing copyleft licenses such as GPL, FDL, FAL, and others, nor with CC jurisdiction ports, of which there were 3 for 1.0).

2.0 (2004-05-25)

CC-BY-SA-2.0 made itself compatible with future versions and CC jurisdiction ports of the same version. Creative Commons did not version CC-SA, leaving CC-BY-SA-2.0 as “the” CC copyleft license. CC-BY-SA-2.0 also adds the only clarification of what constitutes a derivative work, making “synchronization of the Work in timed-relation with a moving image” subject to copyleft.

2.5 (2005-06-09)

CC-BY-SA-2.5 makes only one change, to allow licensor to designate another party to receive attribution. This does not seem interesting for copyleft policy, but the context of the change is: it was promoted by the desire to make attribution of mass collaborations easy (and on the other end of the spectrum, to make it possible to clearly require giving attribution to a publisher, e.g., of a journal). There was a brief experiment in branding CC-BY-SA-2.5 as the “CC-wiki” license. This was an early step toward Wikimedia adopting CC-BY-SA-3.0, four years later.

3.0 (2007-02-23)

CC-BY-SA-3.0 introduced a mechanism for externally declaring bilateral compatibility with other licenses. This mechanism to date has not been used for CC-BY-SA-3.0, in part because another way was found for Wikimedia projects to change their default license from FDL to CC-BY-SA: the Free Software Foundation released FDL 1.3, which gave a time-bound permission for mass collaboration sites to migrate to CC-BY-SA. While not particularly pertinent to copyleft policy, it’s worth noting for anyone wishing to study old versions in depth that 3.0 is the first version to substantially alter the text of most of the license, motivated largely by making the text use less U.S.-centric legal language. The 3.0 text is also considerably longer than previous versions.

4.0 (2013-11-25)

CC-BY-SA-4.0 added to 3.0’s external compatibility declaration mechanism by allowing one-way compatibility. After release of CC-BY-SA-4.0 bilateral compatibility was reached with FAL-1.3. As previously mentioned, one-way compatibility with GPLv3 will soon be discussed.

4.0 also made a subtle change in that an adaptation may be considered to be licensed solely under the adapter’s license (currently CC-BY-SA-4.0 or FAL-1.3, in the future potentially GPLv3 or or a hypothetical CC-BY-SA-5.0). In previous versions licenses were deemed to “stack” – if a work under CC-BY-SA-2.0 were adapted and released under CC-BY-SA-3.0, users of the adaptation would need to comply with both licenses. In practice this is an academic distinction, as compliance with any compatible license would tend to mean compliance with the original license. But for a licensee using a large number of works that wished to be extremely rigorous, this would be a large burden, for it would mean understanding every license (including those of jurisdiction ports not in English) in detail.

The new version is also an even more complete rewrite of 3.0 than 3.0 was of previous versions, completing the “internationalization” of the license, and actually decreasing in length and increasing in readability.

Additionally, 4.0 consistently treats database (licensing them like other copyright-like rights) and moral rights (waiving them to the extent necessary to exercise granted freedoms) – in previous versions some jurisdiction ports treated these differently – and tentatively eliminates the need for jurisdiction ports. Official linguistic translations are underway (Finnish is the first completed) and no legal ports are planned for.

4.0 is the first version to explicitly exclude a patent (and less problematically, trademark) license. It also adds two features akin to those found in GPLv3: waiver of any right licensor may have to enforce anti-circumvention if DRM is applied to the work, and reinstatement of rights after termination if non-compliance corrected within 30 days.

Finally, 4.0 streamlines the attribution requirement, possibly of some advantage to massive long-term collaborations which historically have found copyleft licenses a good fit.

The 4.0 versioning process was much more extensively researched, public, and documented than previous CC-BY-SA versionings; see for the record and for a summary of final decisions.

CC-BY-SA-4.0 International section-by-section

FIXME arguably this section ought be the substance of the tutorial, but is very thin and weak now

FIXME formatted/section-referenced copy of license should be added to license-texts.tex and referenced throughout

The best course of action at this juncture would be to read – the entire text is fairly easy to read, and should be quickly understood if one has the benefit of study of other public licenses and of copyleft policy.

The following walk-through will simply call out portions of each section one may wish to study especially closely due to their pertinence to copyleft policy issues mentioned above.

FIXME subsections might not be the right structure or formatting here

1 – Definitions

The first three definitions – “Adapted Material”, “Adapter’s License”, and “BY-SA Compatible License” are crucial to understanding copyleft scope and compatibility.

2 – Scope

The license grant is what makes all four freedoms available to licensees. This section is also where waiver of DRM anti-circumvention is to be found, also patent and trademark exclusions.

3 – License Conditions

This section contains the details of the attribution and share-alike requirements; the latter read closely with aforementioned definitions describe the copyleft aspect of CC-BY-SA-4.0.

4 – Sui Generis Database Rights

This section describes how the previous grant and condition sections apply in the case of a database subject to sui generis database rights. This is an opportunity to go down a rabbit-hole of trying to understand sui generis database rights. Generally, this is a pointless exercise. You can comply with the license in the same way you would if the work were subject only to copyright – and determining whether a database is subject to copyright and/or sui generis database rights is another pit of futility. You can license databases under CC-BY-SA-4.0 and use databases subject to the same license as if they were any other sort of work.

5 – Disclaimer of Warranties and Limitation of Liability

Unsurprisingly, this section does its best to serve as an “absolute disclaimer and waiver of all liability.”

6 – Term and Termination

This section is similar to GPLv3, but without special provision for cases in which the licensor wishes to terminate even cured violations.

7 – Other Terms and Conditions

Though it uses different language, like the GPL, CC-BY-SA-4.0 does not allow additional restrictions not contained in the license. Unlike the GPL, CC-BY-SA-4.0 does not have an explicit additional permissions framework, although effectively a licensor can offer any other terms if they are the sole copyright holder (the license is non-exclusive), including the sorts of permissions that would be structured as additional permissions with the GPL. Creative Commons has sometimes called offering of separate terms (whether additional permissions or “proprietary relicensing”) the confusing name “CC+”; however where this is encountered at all it is usually in conjunction with one of the non-free CC licenses. Perhaps CC-BY-SA is not a strong enough copyleft to sometimes require additional permissions, or be used to gain commercially valuable asymmetric rights, in contrast with the GPL.

8 – Interpretation

Nothing surprising here. Note that CC-BY-SA does not “reduce, limit, restrict, or impose conditions on any use of the Licensed Material that could lawfully be made without permission under this Public License.” This is a point that Creative Commons has always been eager to make about all of its licenses. GPLv3 also “acknowledges your rights of fair use or other equivalent”. This may be a wise strategy, but should not be viewed as mandatory for any copyleft license – indeed, the ODbL attempts (somewhat self-contradictorily; it also acknowledges fair use or other rights to use) make its conditions apply even for works potentially subject to neither copyright nor sui generis database rights.


There are only a small number of court cases involving any Creative Commons license. Creative Commons lists these and some related cases at

Only two of those cases concern enforcing the terms of a CC-BY-SA license (Gerlach v. DVU in Germany, and No. 71036 N. v. Newspaper in a private Rabbinical tribunal) each hinged on attribution, not share-alike.

Further research could uncover out of compliance uses being brought into compliance without lawsuit, however no such research, nor any hub for conducting such compliance work, is known. Editors of Wikimedia Commons document some external uses of Commons-hosted media, including whether user are compliant with the relevant license for the media (often CC-BY-SA), resulting in a category listing non-compliant uses (which seem to almost exclusively concern attribution).

Compliance Resources

FIXME this section is just a stub; ideally there would also be an additional section or chapter on CC-BY-SA compliance

Creative Commons has a page on ShareAlike interpretation as well as an extensive Frequently Asked Questions for licensees which addresses compliance with the attribution condition.

English Wikipedia’s and Wikimedia Commons’ pages on using material outside of Wikimedia projects provide valuable information, as the majority of material on those sites is CC-BY-SA licensed, and their practices are high-profile.

FIXME there is no section on business use of CC-BY-SA; there probably ought to be as there is one for GPL, though there’d be much less to put.

Wikidata II

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Wikidata went live two years ago, but the II in the title is also a reference to the first page called Wikidata on which for years collected ideas for first class data support in Wikipedia. I had linked to Wikidata I writing about the most prominent of those ideas, Semantic MediaWiki (SMW), which I later (8 years ago) called the most important software project and said would “turn the universal encyclopedia into the universal database while simultaneously improving the quality of the encyclopedia.”

SMW was and is very interesting and useful on some wikis, but turned out to be not revolutionary (the bigger story is wikis turned out to be not revolutionary, or only revolutionary on a small scale, except for Wikipedia) and not quite a fit for Wikipedia and its sibling projects. While I’d temper “most” and “universal” now (and should have 8 years ago), the actual Wikidata project (created by many of the same people who created SMW) is rapidly fulfilling general wikidata hopes.

One “improving the encyclopedia” hope that Wikidata will substantially deliver on over the next couple years and that I only recently realized the importance of is increasing trans-linguistic collaboration and availability of the sum of knowledge in many languages — when facts are embedded in free text, adding, correcting, and making available facts happens on a one-language-at-a-time basis. When facts about a topic are in Wikidata, they can be exposed in every language so long as labels are translated, even if on many topics nothing has ever been written about in nor translated into many languages. Reasonator is a great demonstrator.

Happy 2nd to all Wikidatians and Wikidata, by far the most important project for realizing Wikimedia’s vision. You can and should edit the data and edit and translate the schema. Browse Wikidata WikiProjects to find others working to describe topics of interest to you. I imagine some readers of this blog might be interested in WikiProjects Source MetaData (for citations) and Structured Data for Commons (the media repository).

For folks concerned about intellectual parasites, Wikidata has done the right thing — all data dedicated to the public domain with CC0.


Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

The first wiki[pedia]2journal article has been published: Dengue fever Wikipedia article, peer-reviewed version (PDF). Modern medicine comes online: How putting Wikipedia articles through a medical journal’s traditional process can put free, reliable information into as many hands as possible is the accompanying editorial (emphasis added):

As a source of clinical information, how does Wikipedia differ from UpToDate or, for that matter, a textbook or scholarly journal? Wikipedia lacks three main things. First, a single responsible author, typically with a recognized academic affiliation, who acts as guarantor of the integrity of the work. Second, the careful eye of a trained editorial team, attuned to publication ethics, who ensure consistency and accuracy through the many iterations of an article from submission to publication. Third, formal peer review by at least one, and often many, experts who point out conflicts, errors, redundancies, or gaps. These form an accepted ground from which publication decisions can be made with confidence.

In this issue of Open Medicine, we are pleased to publish the first formally peer-reviewed and edited Wikipedia article. The clinical topic is dengue fever. It has been submitted by the author who has made the most changes, and who has designated 3 others who contributed most meaningfully. It has been peer reviewed by international experts in infectious disease, and by a series of editors at Open Medicine. It has been copy-edited and proofread; once published, it will be indexed in MEDLINE. Although by the time this editorial is read the Wikipedia article will have changed many times, there will be a link on the Wikipedia page that can take the viewer back to the peer-reviewed and published piece on the Open Medicine website. In a year’s time, the most responsible author will submit the changed piece to an indexed journal, so it can move through the same editorial process and continue to function as a valid, reliable, and evolving free and complete reference for everyone in the world. Although there may be a need for shorter, more focused clinical articles published elsewhere as this one expands, it is anticipated that the Wikipedia page on dengue will be a reference against which all others can be compared. While it might be decades before we see an end to dengue, perhaps the time and money saved on exhaustive, expensive, and redundant searches about what yet needs to be done will let us see that end sooner.

I love that this is taking Wikipedia and commons-based peer production into a challenging product area, which if wildly successful, could directly challenge and ultimately destroy the proprietary competition. The editorial notes:

Some institutions pay UpToDate hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for that sense of security. This has allowed Wolters Kluwer, the owners of UpToDate, to accrue annual revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars and to forecast continued double-digit growth as “market conditions for print journals and books … remain soft.”

See the WikiProject Medicine collaborative publication page for more background on the process and future developments. Note at least 7 articles have been published in journal2wiki[pedia] fashion, see PLOS Computational Biology and corresponding Wikipedia articles. Ideally these 2 methods would converge on wiki↔journal, as the emphasized portion of the quote above seems to indicate.

Peer review of Wikipedia articles and publication in another venue in theory could minimize dependencies and maximize mutual benefit between expert authoring (which has historically failed in the wiki context, see Nupedia and Citizendium) and mass collaboration (see challenges noted by editorial above). But one such article only demonstrates the concept; we’ll see whether it becomes an important method, let alone market dominating one.

One small but embarrassing obstacle to wiki↔journal is license incompatibility. PLOS journals use CC-BY-4.0 (donor-only relative to following; the version isn’t important for this one) and Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-3.0 (recipient-only relative to previous…and following) and Open Medicine CC-BY-SA-2.5-Canada (donor-only relative to the immediately previous) — meaning if all contributors to the Dengue fever Wikipedia article did not sign off, the journal version is technically not in compliance with the upstream license. Clearly nobody should care about this second issue, except for license stewards, who should mitigate the problem going forward: all previous versions (2.0 or greater due to lack of a “later versions” provision in 1.0) of CC-BY-SA should be added to CC-BY-SA-4.0’s compatibility list, allowing contributions to go both ways. The first issue unfortunately cannot be addressed within the framework of current licenses (bidirectional use could be avoided, or contributors could all sign off, either of which would be outside the license framework).

Daniel Mietchen (who is a contributor to the aforementioned journal2wiki effort, and just about everything else relating to Wikipedia and Open Access) has another version of his proposal to open up research funding proposals up at the Knight News Challenge: Libraries site. Applaud and comment there if you like, as I do (endorsement of previous version).

Near the beginning of the above editorial:

New evidence pours in to the tune of 12 systematic reviews per day, and accumulating the information and then deciding how to incorporate it into one’s practice is an almost impossible task. A study published in BMJ showed that if one hoped to take account of all that has been published in the relatively small discipline of echocardiography, it would take 5 years of constant reading—by which point the reader would be a year behind.

A similar avalanche of publishing can be found in any academic discipline. It is conceivable that copyright helps, providing an incentive for services like UpToDate. My guess is that it gets in the way, both by propping up arrangements oriented toward pumping out individual articles, and by putting up barriers (the public license incompatibility mentioned above is inconsequential compared to the paywalled, umitigated copyright, and/or PDF-only case which dominates) to collaborative — human and machine — distillation of the states of the art. As I wrote about entertainment, do not pay copyright holders, for a good future.

Proprietary profitability as a key metric for open access and open source

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Glyn Moody in Beyond Open Standards and Open Access:

Like open source, open access is definitely winning, even if there is some desperate rearguard action by the publishers, who are trying to protect their astonishing profit margins – typically 30-40%.

No doubt open source and open access have progressed, but the competition maintaining astonishing profit margins contradicts “definitely winning.” For publishing, see Elsevier, £0.8b profit on £2.1b revenue, and others. For software most pertinent to Moody’s post (concerning Open Document Format), see Microsoft’s business division, $16b profit on $24b revenue.

These profits coupled with the slow relative progress of open source and open access give proprietary vendors huge range to not only take “desperate rearguard action” but also to create new products and forms of lock-in with which the commons is continually playing catch-up.

We know what the commons “definitely winning” looks like — Linux (server software) and Wikipedia (encyclopedias) — and it includes proprietary vendor profit margins being crushed, most going out of business, and those remaining transitioning to service lines of business less predicated on privatized censorship.

When libraries begin mass cancellation of toll access journal subscriptions and organizations of all sorts cancel Microsoft, Adobe, and similar software subscriptions, then we can consider whether open access and open source are definitely winning. Until then the answer is definitely no.

As for what’s next for open standards and open access (Moody suggests further ODF mandates, which would be fine), the obvious answer is open source. It’s what allows realization of the promise of open standards, and the cancellation of Microsoft subscriptions. It’s also what’s next for academic publishing and everything else — what is not software will be obsolete — though cancellation of those toll access subscriptions is going to require going back to basics.

Free/open/commons advocates should consider destruction of proprietary competition profitability a key aim and metric of success or lack thereof, for both open products and policy. This metric has several benefits:

  • Indicates relative progress. Any non-moribund project/movement can make seeming progress, blind to different and potentially much greater progress by competition.
  • Implicates role of knowledge economy and policy in increasing or decreasing equality (of income and wealth, not just access).
  • Hard numbers, data readily available.
  • It’s reasonable to multiply destruction of proprietary profits when characterizing gains (so as to include decrease in deadweight loss).

Generative acknowledgement

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Robin Sloan, The secret of Minecraft: And its challenge to the rest of us

In the 2010s and beyond, it is not the case that every cultural product ought to be a generative, networked system.

It is, I believe, the case that all the really important ones will be.

Nathan Matias, Designing Acknowledgement on the Web:

A system which acknowledges the beauty of cooperative relationships can’t be based on the impersonal idea of hypertext or the egocentric notion of authorship. It can’t rely on licenses to threaten people into acknowledging each other.

Via 1 2 3 and confirmation bias about which I can’t think of anything smart to say, so I’ll include a fun word: contextomy. Neither of the above reaches that bar, but I’ll try harder next time.

Posts on the ought of generative, networked production and intellectual parasite debasement of acknowledgement.