Post Creative Commons

Patent reform, parts deficient in commons

Friday, April 18th, 2014

A Five Part Plan for Patent Reform (pdf) by Charles Duan, Director of Patent Reform at Public Knowledge, is simultaneously good and deficient:

  1. Notes theoretical and observed problems with monopoly incentive story underlying patents, mixed empirical results, regulatory cause of strong positive results in one field (pharma), layers of abuse surrounding core in implementation, the existence of many non-monopoly incentives for innovation, conflicts between these and patents … and yet fundamentally accepts the noble origin role of monopoly incentives in protecting apple pie and correlation with some inventions — nevermind causality or counterfactual. Compare text “certainly many inventions through history, such as the light bulb, the airplane, and the photocopier, were invented by small inventors and protected by patents” and its citation (footnote 7, The Myth of the Sole Inventor)!
  2. Discusses commons (Open Innovation Communities) as evidence, and substantially better than typical writing doing so, as at least a concept of pro-commons reform is included: “One task for patent reform, then, is to consider adjustments to the patent system that better accommodate these alternate incentives for innovation. The goal of such adjustments is to better encourage these inventors incentivized by factors other than patents, and to ensure that patents do not stand in the way of those inventors.” As usual, commons regimes carved out of property defaults are mentioned (specifically GPL and DPL), but not as prototypes for default policy. Also, “it is important for these decisionmakers to reach out to inventing communities, even those that do not file for patents, and it is important for those communities to reach out to the Patent Office and other decisionmakers.” I think this also holds for “IP scholars” (which of course ought re-imagine themselves as commons scholars) and OIC participants/commoners — let’s talk about what concrete reforms would favor actually existing commons, and put those on the scholarly and policy agendas. A recent idea directly concerning patents that ought start down that long road, but many pertinent reforms may be indirect, favoring commons in other ways so as to change the knowledge economy which eventually determines what interests dominate.
  3. Innovation is assumed the top goal of policy, tempered only by conflict among incentives to innovate, and need to rein in unscrupulous behavior. No mention of freedom and almost none of equality (Joseph Stiglitz is quoted: “The alternative of awarding prizes would be more efficient and more equitable”), let alone as goals which trump innovation.

These three good/deficient pairs are endemic in intellectual property-focused discourse, e.g., see my recent reviews of IP in a World Without Scarcity and Copyright and Inequality — one of the reasons the latter is so great is that places equality firmly on the agenda.

A few other notes on A Five Part Plan for Patent Reform:

  • It’s not a plan, rather an exploration of “five key areas in which the patent system is ripe for reform.” The word plan doesn’t even appear in the text. Well worth reading, but don’t expect to find an actionable plan with five parts.
  • Notes that patent trolls existed in the 1800s (individual farmers were bullied to pay royalties for farm implements covered by patents), which is good (too often current discourse assumes intellectual property worked just fine until recently, with conflict caused by changing technology rather than by power and rent seeking), but then: “Analogously, as discussed above, farm technology was widely used in the nineteenth century, and patents on farm technology were hotly contested. Patents on those farm tools were effectively abolished. But that fix to the patent system did not prevent the software patent problems faced today—it ultimately was a Band-Aid rather than a cure. The same would be true of eliminating software patents. The fundamental issue is that the technologies of tomorrow are unknown, so targeting patent reform to one specific field of technology means that the same problems will only arise again in a different technological sector.” Sure, only abolishing all patents is sufficient, but this analogy seriously undersells the benefit of abolishing software patents: agriculture then was in relative decline of importance in the face of industrialization. Now, software is ascendant, and any technology of tomorrow that matters will involve software.
  • Focuses on FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing for standards. But RF (royalty free) licensing is required for any standard in which commons-based projects are first class participants (e.g., free/open source software and codec patents). No doubt unscrupulous behavior around FRAND and standards is a problem, but the solution is RF for standards.
  • From the Public Knowledge site, reading the paper requires first supplying an email address to a third party (gumroad). Annoying, but on par with PK’s newsletter practices (one of the many favoring tracking users at cost of usefulness to users). Better, the paper is released under CC-BY-SA, so I uploaded a copy to the Internet Archive. Best, Duan has published the paper’s LaTeX source.

How different would the net be without Firefox?

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

David Flanagan, latest making claim I’ve read many times:

Without Mozilla, there would have been no Firefox, and the internet would be very different today.

Mitchell Baker in only a few more words included a combined mechanism and outcome:

We moved the desktop and browsing environments to a much more open place, with far more options and control available to individuals.

Baker further explained Mozilla aims to make an analogous difference in the computing environment of today and the future:

Today we live in a different online era. This era combines desktop, mobile devices, cloud services, big data and a social layer. It is feature-rich, highly centralized, and focused on a few giant organizations that exert control over almost all aspects of the experience. Today’s computing environment is deeply in need of an open, exciting alternative that shows what the Open Web brings to this setting — something built on parts including Firefox OS, WebGL, asm.js, and the many other innovations being developed at Mozilla. It is comparable to the desktop computing environment we set out to revolutionize when we started Mozilla.

Mozilla needs to bring a similar scope of change to the new computing era. Once again, Mozilla needs to break down the walled gardens of online life and bring openness and opportunity to all. Once again, we have the chance to build products and communities in a way that no one else will.

(Baker’s post announced Brendan Eich as CEO, Flanagan lays out some information following Eich’s resignation. That crisis presumably changed nothing about evaluations of Mozilla’s previous impact, nor its plans for analogous future impact. The crisis just provided an opportunity for many to repeat such evaluations and plans. This post is my idiosyncratic exploitation of the opportunity.)

Those are important claims and plans, and I tend to strongly agree with them. My logic, in brief:

  • there’s a lot of scope for the net (and society at large) to be substantially more or less “open” than it is or might be due to relatively small knowledge policy and knowledge economy changes;
  • there’s a lot of scope for commons-based projects to push the knowledge economy (and largely as an effect, knowledge policy) in the direction of “open”;
  • due to network effects and economies of scale, huge commons-based projects are needed to realize this potential for pushing society in an “open” direction;
  • Mozilla is one of a small number of such huge commons-based projects, and its main products have and will be in positions with lots of leverage.

Independent of my logic (which of course I doubt and welcome criticism of) for agreeing with them, I think claims about Mozilla’s past and potential future impact are important enough to be criticized and refined rather than suffering the unremitting bludgeoning of obscurity or triviality.

How could one begin to evaluate how much and what sort of difference Mozilla, primarily through Firefox, has made? Some things to look at:

  • other free/open source software browser projects;
  • competition among proprietary browsers;
  • differences between Firefox and proprietary browsers in developing and implementing web standards;
  • all aspects of Mozilla performance vs. comparable (Mozilla is different in many respects, but surely amenable to many tools of organizational evaluation and comparison) organizations;
  • 2nd order effects of a superior (for a period, and competitive otherwise) free/open source browser, e.g., viability of free desktop (though never achieving significant market share, must be responsible for huge increases in consumer surplus due through constraint on proprietary pricing and behavior) and inspiration for other open source projects, demonstration of feasibility of commons-based competition in mass market.

It’s possible that such questions are inadequate for characterizing the impact of Mozilla, but surely they would help inform such characterization. If those are the wrong questions, or the wrong sort of questions, what are the right ones? Has anyone, in any field, taken evaluation of Mozilla’s differential impact beyond the Baker quote above? I’d love to read about how the net would have been different without Firefox, and how we might expect the success or failure of new Mozilla initiatives to produce different worlds.

These kinds of questions are also important (or at a minimum, interesting to me) for other commons-based initiatives, e.g., Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

A plan for a plan to accelerate clarity on “NonCommercial” by 100%

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

After 11+ years, 4 major license suite versions, focused research, and movement education campaigns, Creative Commons achieved a quantum increase in the clarity of the definition of NonCommercial as used in some of (CC-BY-ND does not) its semicommons licenses:

not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.

In the next 11+ years, Creative Commons can improve this performance by precisely 100% — remove two more words from the definition. Nobody knows which words yet: discovery will take years of versioning, research, outreach, collaboration with NonCommercial definition reusers, and perhaps a party. The result, even if not intended to change the substantive meaning of the definition, will bring an unprecedented level of clarity to NonCommercial. We can only look forward to but not yet imagine the next one.

Hazard Records 015

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Hazard Records 002 cover with no copyright notice

Barcelona-based avant/improv/appropriation/noise CD-R and now netlabel Hazard Records celebrates its 15th anniversary today (March 25). All of their releases are dedicated to the public domain (recent ones using CC0; for the trivia-oriented, note their pre-CC “no rights reserved” in the cover image above). I’ve been a dedicated listener since not long after they started uploading to the Internet Archive in 2004, 76 albums as of now, with one more each of the next four weeks coming in celebration of the anniversary. My top 4 easy listening recommendations…

Anton Ignorant – S/S Magick For Abused Speakers [HR017] (meditative noise)

Breuss Arrizabalaga Quintet – Nfamoudou-Boudougou [HR038] (free jazz)

Joan Bagés i Rubí – Miscel.lània Sonora [HR053] (avant miscellany)

XMARX – Unhazardous Songs [HR060] (rock ‘n’ ‘ropriation)

Unfortunately many Hazard Records albums on the Internet Archive don’t have embedded artist/album/title metadata in the ogg/mp3/flac downloads; this being one of the main motivations behind my wishlist for that site. But nobody downloads anymore and the Internet Archive has a passable (for now, if you’re not totally expecting uninterrupted play across pages that newer sites support) embedded player, used in this post and on the site. Listen, enjoy, and share…links.

Bonus recommendation:

Musica Veneno – Whole Lotta Love Story [HR015] (intra-label appropriation)

Happy 15 Hazardous years! I’m looking forward to the next 80 records.

Empathy for the Gooseberry

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

You’ve almost certainly seen at least snippets of the Blender Foundation’s four short animated films Elephants Dream (2006), Big Buck Bunny (2008), Sintel (2010) and Tears of Steel (2012; my blog post riffing on a memorable scene) — because they’re high quality and freely licensed for any use (CC-BY) they’re frequently used in demos.

Now Blender Foundation (who primarily make the free software Blender 3D modeling, animation, video editing, and more program; they use open movie projects to push the software forward) is working on a feature-length animated film, Gooseberry, which would mark a new milestone (Sita Sings the Blues will surely remain the best feature length free film of any sort, but was made with non-free software and is 2D).

They have an ambitious crowdfunding goal of €500,000 to support the project. I pledged and hope you’ll join me. A few interesting bits from the campaign FAQ:

What quality can we expect? Like, compared to Sintel, or a Pixar movie?

As magic number for budget calculations, I use the “Months of work per minute of film”. This is including writing, coders, art, production.

For Big Buck Bunny that was 6. For Sintel it was 10. For Gooseberry we daringly want to go to 15 even. For a Disney or Pixar film, this number is easily 300 to 500. Go figure! But our film will be better than Sintel or BBB for sure.

What is this “exploitation window”

Even though everything will be free/open source, we will reserve for the final movie (renders, final edit, grade) a short period of exploitation. That ‘window’ is 3 months, starting at the official premiere (our own, or on film festival). Film distributors can pay us for the exclusive rights to show the film in theaters during that period. Or TV stations, or Netflix! After that, all gates go open and we release it as CC-BY for everyone.

I can’t complain about the non-free “exploitation window”, as there’s zero infrastructure for marketing and distributing free-as-in-freedom films; in the short term, the window might get the film to a wider audience and thus build its cultural relevance and value as a free film after the window. The existence of free and culturally relevant films will be a huge help to any eventual such marketing and distribution infrastructure, so best of luck to the Gooseberry team in all respects.

There’s another short made with Blender in progress called Wires For Empathy:

A 3D animated short film based in free/libre software, Tube is also a new experiment in distributed collaboration. It plays on the ancient Gilgamesh poem, in a variant of the hero’s progress that becomes the animation’s own frames.

The trailer looks great:

Sympathy for the Strawberry is not one of my favorite Sonic Youth tracks, but the above titles made me think of it. I would heavily contribute to a crowdfunded free-as-in-freedom album by a reunited band sans Thurston Moore, call it Free Sonic Youth. Which part (free or Thurston-free) is most unlikely?

Free Bassel & Open Borders Days

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

March 15, another year of Bassel Khartibil‘s life as a political prisoner in Syria. Some friends put together a cookbook (pdf) with meals they’d like to share with him when he is free.

Macabre image for a macabre situation.

March 16 is Open Borders Day. Bassel apparently returned to Syria voluntarily. There are millions who have little chance of leaving dictatorships, war zones, and grinding poverty — not because they are imprisoned by the local regime, but because we allow the international apartheid system to stand.

Gov[ernance]Lab impressions

Friday, March 7th, 2014

First, two excerpts of my previous posts to explain my rationale for this one. 10 months ago:

I wonder the extent to which reform of any institution, dominant or otherwise, away from capture and enclosure, toward the benefit and participation of all its constituents, might be characterized as commoning?

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


Other than envious destruction of power (the relevant definition and causes of which being tenuous, making effective action much harder) and gradual construction of alternatives, how can one be a democrat? I suspect more accurate information and more randomness are important — I’ll sometimes express this very specifically as enthusiasm for futarchy and sortition — but I’m also interested in whatever small increases in accurate information and randomness might be feasible, at every scale and granularity — global governance to small organizations, event probabilities to empirically validated practices.

I read about the Governance Lab @ NYU (GovLab) in a forward of a press release:

Combining empirical research with real-world experiments, the Research Network will study what happens when governments and institutions open themselves to diverse participation, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and seek input and expertise from a range of people.

That sounded interesting, perhaps not deceivingly — as I browsed the site, open tabs accumulated. Notes on some of those follow.

GovLab’s hypothesis:

When institutions open themselves to diverse participation and collaborative problem solving, they become more effective and the decisions they make are more legitimate.

I like this coupling of effectiveness and legitimacy. Another way of saying politics isn’t about policy is that governance isn’t about effectiveness, but about legitimizing power. I used to scoff at the concept of legitimacy, and my mind still boggles at arrangements passing as “legitimate” that enable mass murder, torture, and incarceration. But our arrangements are incredibly path dependent and hard to improve; now I try to charitably consider legitimacy a very useful shorthand for arrangements that have some widely understood and accepted level of effectiveness. Somewhat less charitably: at least they’ve survived, and one can do a lot worse than copying survivors. Arrangements based on open and diverse participation and collaborative problem solving are hard to legitimate: not only do they undermine what legitimacy is often really about, it is hard to see how they can work in theory or practice, relative to hierarchical command and control. Explicitly tackling effectiveness and legitimacy separately and together might be more useful than assuming one implies the other, or ignoring one of them. Refutation of the hypothesis would also be useful: many people could refocus on increasing the effectiveness and legitimacy of hierarchical, closed systems.

If We Only Knew:

What are the essential questions that if answered could help accelerate the transformation of how we solve public problems and provide for public goods?

The list of questions isn’t that impressive, but not bad either. The idea that such a list should be articulated is great. Every project ought maintain such a list of essential questions pertinent to the project’s ends!

Proposal 13 for ICANN: Provide an Adjudication Function by Establishing “Citizen” Juries (emphasis in original):

As one means to enhance accountability – through greater engagement with the global public during decision-making and through increased oversight of ICANN officials after the fact – ICANN could pilot the use of randomly assigned small public groups of individuals to whom staff and volunteer officials would be required to report over a given time period (i.e. “citizen” juries). The Panel proposes citizen juries rather than a court system, namely because these juries are lightweight, highly democratic and require limited bureaucracy. It is not to the exclusion of other proposals for adjudicatory mechanisms.

Anyone interested in random selection and juries has to be at least a little interesting, and on the right track. Or so I’ve thought since hearing about the idea of science courts and whatever my first encounter with sortition advocacy was (forgotten, but see most recent), both long ago.

Quote in a quote:

“The largest factor in predicting group intelligence was the equality of conversational turn-taking.”

What does that say about:

  • Mailing lists and similar fora used by projects and organizations, often dominated by loudmouths (to say nothing of meetings dominated by high-status talkers);
  • Mass media, including social media dominated by power law winners?

Surely it isn’t pretty for the intelligence of relevant groups. But perhaps impetus to actually implement measures often discussed when a forum gets out of control (e.g., volume or flamewars) such as automated throttling, among many other things. On the bright side, there could be lots of low hanging fruit. On the dim side, I’m surely making extrapolations (second bullet especially) unsupported by research I haven’t read!

Coordinating the Commons: Diversity & Dynamics in Open Collaborations, excerpt from a dissertation:

Learning from Wikipedia’s successes and failures can help researchers and designers understand how to support open collaborations in other domains — such as Free/Libre Open Source Software, Citizen Science, and Citizen Journalism. [...] To inquire further, I have designed a new editor peer support space, the Wikipedia Teahouse, based on the findings from my empirical studies. The Teahouse is a volunteer-driven project that provides a welcoming and engaging environment in which new editors can learn how to be productive members of the Wikipedia community, with the goal of increasing the number and diversity of newcomers who go on to make substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

Interesting for a few reasons:

  • I like the title, cf. commons coordination (though I was primarily thinking of inter-project/movement coordination);
  • OpenHatchy;
  • I like the further inquiry’s usefulness for research and the researched community;
  • Improving the effectiveness of mass collaboration is important, including for its policy effects.

Back to the press release:

Support for the Network from will be used to build technology platforms to solve problems more openly and to run agile, real-world, empirical experiments with institutional partners such as governments and NGOs to discover what can enhance collaboration and decision-making in the public interest.

I hope those technology platforms will be open to audit and improvement by the public, i.e., free/open source software. GovLab’s site being under an open license (CC-BY-SA) could be a small positive indicator (perhaps not rising to the level of an essential question for anyone, but I do wonder how release and use of “content” or “data” under an open license correlates with release and use of open source software, if there’s causality in either direction, and if there could be interventions that would usefully reinforce any such).

I’m glad that NGOs are a target. Seems it ought be easier to adopt and spread governance innovation among NGOs (and businesses) than among governments, if only because there’s more turnover. But I’m not impressed. I imagine this could be due, among other things, to my ignorance: perhaps over a reasonable time period non-state governance has improved more rapidly than state governance, or to non-state governance being even less about effectiveness and more about power than is state governance, or to governance being really unimportant for survival, thus a random walk.

Something related I’ll never get around to blogging separately: the 2 year old New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’ (summary), concerning the danger of allowing term to denote a government that publishes data, even merely politically insensitive data around service provision, rather than politically sensitive transparency and ability to demand accountability. I agree about the danger. The authors recommend maintaining distinctions between accountability, service provision, and adaptability of data. I find these distinctions aren’t often made explicit, and perhaps they shouldn’t be: it’d be a pain. But on the activist side, I think most really are pushing for politically sensitive transparency (and some focused on data about service provision might fairly argue such is often deeply political); certainly none want open data to be a means of openwashing. For one data point, I recommend the Oakland chapter of Beyond Transparency. Finally, Stop Secret Contracts seems like a new campaign entirely oriented toward politically sensitive transparency and accountability rather than data release. I hope they get beyond petitions, but I signed.

Unlock federated MediaGoblin hosting revolution game

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

About 16 months after raising $42k to feed the programmers (my post about that campaign), the MediaGoblin team is asking again, with promised features dependent on the total amount raised.

I’m pretty excited about three features. First, at $35k:

Federation: Connect and share with friends and family even if you’re on different MediaGoblin sites! We’ll be adding federation support via the Pump API.

Mostly because this would be a boost to the so far disappointing and fractured federated social web.


[UNLOCK] Premium hosting reward! If we hit 60k, we’ll add a new reward option: premium hosting!

Doesn’t federation make hosting superfluous? Everyone should run their own server, right? No, those are extremely delusional or elitist claims. I don’t want to run my own server, nor do 7 billion others. Federation (preferably in conjunction with free software, data and identifier portability) enables interoperation and competition among individual-, community-, and commercially-run services. At this stage there seem to be very significant economies of scale (inclusive of marketing!) in running servers. Hopefully someone (the developers would be natural) will realize the necessity of mass hosting of federated services for federation to win.


[statement] After watching the new MediaGoblin video, i want to play their video game.

[response] I’ve joked about putting a goblin video game as a 500k feature unlock

Here I just wanted to point out how much of MediaGoblin lead developer Christopher Webber’s personality and vision is in the campaign video, assets, and overall scheme. That vision goes pretty far beyond federated media hosting. Free games and art are part of it. But a MediaGoblin game would be a great marketing tie-in solely for the goal of promoting MediaGoblin. I hope this happens; $500k this campaign would be great, but under other circumstances if not.

Shaver: Copyright and Inequality

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

copyright inequality iconI really enjoyed Copyright and Inequality, a new paper by Lea Shaver forthcoming in the Washington University Law Review — enough to attempt a summary on first read, and to read a second time, aloud, in hope that some people who would never read a 52 page paper might still hear its message.

The paper is highly readable, a large part of it (“A Case Study in Book Hunger”, numbered pages 9-22, about books, languages, and the socio-economics of South Africa) of general interest, barely mentioning copyright at all — though if you start by reading that section, hopefully you’ll then read the rest of the paper to find out how copyright is implicated. May the remainder of this post be a complement.

Inequality Promotion

To put it crudely, Copyright and Inequality mostly concerns copyright’s role in keeping the poor poor, rather than its role in concentrating wealth. The latter seems even less studied than the former, but the former seems more important, unless you consider rule by plutocracy the most urgent issue in the world.

In the category of keeping the poor poor, the magnitude of copyright’s negative impact on neglected language (cf. neglected disease) populations was new to me — the requirement of permission to translate contributes to almost no books being available in these languages, for pleasure, or for education, the latter creating a bottleneck for further life opportunities (n.b. “everyone should learn English” is a multi-generation strategy only successfully carried out by wealthy countries so far).

The cost issue is obvious, but can hardly be repeated enough. Shaver provides the example of books (when available at all, almost always in English) costing 2x as much in South Africa as in the US or UK, while income is far lower, especially for the poor (about half of the population lives on less than US$50 a month).

Many countries are far poorer than South Africa, and large populations dependent on neglected languages are common. Many wealthy countries, the U.S. in particular, have large populations of poor and neglected language speakers. Copyright is helping keep the poor poor everywhere. (Expensive textbooks are appropriately a priority target in the U.S., but every good that carries a copyright monopoly tax contributes in some combination to material poverty and cultural exclusion.)

Shaver makes a very strong case for including distributive justice in copyright discourse, along the way summarizing well known problems with the dominant romantic authorship + incentive narrative which has sidelined equality. She doesn’t push for any single solution, but the most interesting discussion is of the possibility of a carve out for translation to neglected languages, along the lines of such for braille and audio versions for use by blind users. Shaver says that copyright term extension should be opposed (additionally) for distributive justice concerns, but term reduction is “politically impossible” due to treaty obligation. (In what other fields is scholarly discourse on substantially alternative and obviously superior arrangements — the current regime based on “more fallacy than fact” — so readily discarded?)


Copyright and Inequality mentions free/open/commons production or distribution briefly in a few places:

  • Another scholar mentioned commons-based peer production in the context of patents.
  • The “more radical” (than providing access at public libraries) solution of “allocating public textbook funds to the production of Open Educational Resources.” (Actually a rapidly growing practice.)
  • “Open business models” meaning very broadly cultural production not dependent on restricting copying.
  • “Limited commons”, e.g., copyright might be relaxed for a neglected language, but translations of new works in that language to non-neglected languages would be fully restricted.

I’m happy that these are included at all, but commons advocates need to make full versions central. A carve out for translation to neglected languages would be better than none, but if it is achieved, will take many years of negotiation, and be riddled with requirements that will limit effectiveness (as Shaver notes is the case with carve outs for disability), and obviously would leave all non-linguistic copyright inequality mechanisms, and the resources of interest groups that support enclosure, fully intact. Commons-based funding mandates and peer production can happen much faster, and are anything but politically impossible, and can make a huge impact, far beyond a “patch”.

This potential huge impact might hold especially for neglected languages, which essentially are not being served at all by proprietary production. For everyone, as I’ve said many times, product competition from the commons both reduces the resources available to enclosure industries to lobby for protectionism and re-imagines the range of desirable policy, in sum shifting what is politically possible.

Buttressed with recognition of copyright inequality, in particular its negative impact on neglected language populations, what might various commons advocates, projects, and movements do? Some off-the-cuff notes:

  • I’ve long admired Wikimedia’s commitment to host its projects (Wikipedia and friends) for any language community capable of maintaining a project, even a very small one, and its enunciation of the importance of this commitment and of Wikimedia’s freedom (as a non-profit) to pursue such a commitment. The result so far includes Wikipedia in 287 languages and much more, with even more in incubation, formal and informal movement communities around the world, a program to make Wikipedia access free of mobile data charges in the developing world, and probably much more I’m not aware of. Should the findings of Copyright and Inequality lead the various parts of the Wikimedia movement to multiply their efforts to support the growth of and access to free knowledge in neglected languages and increase estimates of the Wikimedia movement’s economic values accordingly? The paper’s findings are probably already well known by the staunchest language advocates around Wikimedia, but perhaps they should be taken even more seriously than they already are. I am ignorant of the human side of Wikimedia outreach to neglected language communities, but surely there is now a substantial body of experience which could be leveraged in making further investments and partnerships. On the technical side, perhaps the migration of lots of knowledge into the truly multilingual Wikidata project could enable more projects in more languages to be truly useful, even for very small language communities?
  • The importance of first language availability of texts, especially educational materials, implies that software user interface availability in the user’s first language is probably pretty important too. What would it take to increase popular free/open source software application language support from dozens (Firefox claims over 80, LibreOffice over 30) to hundreds, even thousands of languages, thereby including most neglected languages? More collaboration across program translation efforts? More centralization? Collaboration with governments, educational systems, funders? A higher bar for user interface changes requiring translation updates? Fewer programs?
  • Fund the creation new free knowledge (inclusive of entertainment!) works in neglected languages, e.g., with small grants and prizes, and introduction of collaborative production, e.g., book sprints?
  • Market, sell, distribute, push for adoption of free knowledge works among neglected language populations — this is what publishers do (given a wealthy enough population anyway), and what must be done for the commons. Making works available online, with no promotion, only solves problems for an elite, and doesn’t offer proprietary publishers any competition, where they choose to compete.
  • Could recognition of the value of neglected languages provide an impetus for a new and large effort toward free software machine translation? Little progress has been made thus far, perhaps in part because some proprietary services such as Google Translate are gratis, and work for most non-neglected languages. Could redoubled effort to support neglected languages in Wikimedia projects (Wikisource translations might be especially relevant) and free/open source software projects help provide needed parallel corpora?
  • Awareness of the plight of neglected language populations could buttress arguments for open funding mandates, particularly if it could be demonstrated that some resulting materials were actually translated and used by said populations — neglected language translation and marketing might even be included in some such mandates, or funders and projects working with neglected language populations could specifically target translation and distribution of the “best” of the output of open funding mandates.
  • Awareness of neglected languages could buttress arguments for voluntary release of works under free/open licenses or into the public domain. (A handful of readers might note that translation-only licenses have been proposed, and a “Developing Nations” license briefly offered. The latter got almost no use before it was retired, perhaps in part because it seemed both confusing and paternalistic — and I doubt these very limited commons offer much, including in public license form. I can’t stress enough that sales/marketing/distribution/adoption are very tough and very necessary, and commons projects have largely failed at them to date. Given this, it is insane to cut off entire segments of potential collaborators, e.g., free knowledge projects and diaspora communities.)
  • Increasing commons movements’ self-awareness of their ability to help neglected language populations could buttress these movements’ self-awareness of their own political potency, leading them to act unashamedly as an interest group and to boldly stake a claim for the commons as the central paradigm for information/innovation policy, thereby further increasing their political potency, and ability to help neglected language populations. (Recursion intentional!)


Further excerpts from Copyright and Inequality:

Overall, copyright law works quite well for copyright scholars at leading universities.

Funniest sentence in the paper, presumably unintentional. (One small bit of progress would be for “copyright scholars” to re-imagine themselves as “commons scholars”; cf. copyright experts→commons experts.)

Its protections give us control over our own writings, which we can choose to invoke or to waive, as we believe best suits our own interests. Its incentives help to stimulate the production of an ever-greater variety of informative and entertaining works for our professional and personal development. Its limitations on access and use of copyrighted works only rarely pose significant problems for us. From this perspective, it is easy to miss the more profound problems posed for the 99% of the world that does not enjoy the same privileged position of access.

From this privileged perspective, creative production resembles a constantly expanding buffet of choice laid before us, among which we may select the most appealing options until we are full. Perhaps some of these offerings are being produced in languages we do not speak. No matter, more than enough choices remain. In our affluence of resources and opportunities, we might even choose to acquire fluency in a second language to further expand our choices. Copyright protection promises to raise the quality, the diversity, at the very least the sheer number of offerings placed upon the table. How could this be a bad thing? But can your peripheral vision stretch farther still? If so, you might see, standing back behind you, a hungry crowd. They are the poor. They are a majority of the world. They too admire the buffet. But they realize it is not laid for them. For some of us, the proliferation of new works is a bounty, opening up new worlds of consumer choice, new horizons of creativity to explore. For most of the world’s population, however, the expanding universe of new cultural works is yet another site of social privilege from which they are effectively excluded.

Well and powerfully said regarding the unseen and neglected, but I submit further that our forward vision is profoundly myopic. Relative to the (perhaps two billion?) people who are both poor and only read a neglected language, wealthy people with English fluency are incredibly privileged, and have ready access to an astounding and ever-growing surfeit of culturally relevant educational and entertainment materials. Those employed by wealthy universities have yet more ready access. Just before the humorous sentence:

Located in major research universities, we also enjoy supremely convenient access to the best-funded libraries in the world. As a group, we do not fail to complain when we notice that copyright law impedes our own ability to access, create, and distribute cultural works. Fortunately, our legal expertise and professional experience positions us well to both recognize the legal roots of our problems, and to suggest solutions to our legislatures and courts.

But however well positioned relative to neglected language populations or the general public of wealthy countries, these complaints and suggestions always face a tremendous uphill battle, at best. The enclosure industries are much better positioned than their scholars.

We love whatever culture we grow up in, but I doubt the one driven by the maximization of rents available from cultural products (cf.), at the expense of freedom and equality, is anywhere near the best of possible worlds, even for those with access to those products. I think an analogy to the internet is appropriate: had a small number of closed electronic services continued to dominate, and a decentralized network never developed, we would now think of the AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy of 2014 as amazing — and they would be! The much better world of the internet would be beyond the imagination of most. Culturally, that AOLternative universe is the one we live in. But we can catch some glimpses of the internet universe, e.g., in Wikipedia, in PLOS, in memories of Napster.

Perhaps appropriately, only acting in the interests of poor and neglected language populations, against copyright inequality, will we be able to leave the AOL culture scenario and into the internet culture universe.

Closing quote from Copyright and Inequality:

An often-quoted statement by John Maynard Keynes posits that “The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice, and individual liberty.” The perspectives of economic efficiency and individual liberty have profoundly informed our discussion of copyright law. Yet the perspective of social justice has been comparatively absent. Reckoning with the ways in which social inequality impacts the market for copyrighted work begins to supply this missing perspective. In the end, the inequality insight also leads us back to economic efficiency and individual liberty. For a system of creative production and exchange that excludes most of the world from participation is also not economically efficient. Nor does it effectively promote individual liberty for all. To promote all three of these values, copyright policy and scholarship must account for the realities of social inequality.

Read the entire paper, and share!

Art of cc-community

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

The reading group (curated by Nate Aune) I mentioned as having started with Coase’s Penguin is on to its first book: The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation, 2nd Edition (2012) by Jono Bacon. It happens this corresponds with another delayed book review, though only by 18 months in this case, and largely motivated by the book including an interview with me (reproduced below).

This is a large tome. You can download it as a 20 megabyte PDF with 574 pages (linked from the book website along with usual purchase locations). I see substantial portions of about 5 books therein:

  • Autobiography of Jono Bacon. Less of this book is latent in the tome than those below, but tales of Bacon’s life are interspersed, and his personality comes through strong (n.b. Bacon uses “tales” to denote stories told within a community, not “tall tales”; similarly “fables” to denote stories that explain a community, not myths).
  • Inside the Ubuntu/Canonical Ltd. community: how it works, its tales and fables.
  • Tools and practices for managing an open source software community, especially one led by a for-profit company (corresponding to Ubuntu/Canonical Ltd. above).
  • Reference/workbook for community managers and their managers. Also interspersed throughout, but especially the chapter on hiring a community manager.
  • Community management casebook, heavily leaning on interviews with open source software project managers, but also many other types of community leaders and managers.

If any one of these piques your interest, it’s worth downloading the PDF and clicking in the ToC or word-searching, as is your style. If multiple seem compelling (say your company wants to hire a community manager, or you want to be hired as a community manager by a company), then reading the whole thing carefully would be a good use of your time.

(Of course it shouldn’t be your only reading, not least because “community management” is fraught, maybe especially in service of a for profit, and there exist plenty of criticisms of the Ubuntu/Canonical Ltd. community. I even agree with some of those criticisms, but my top level “complaint” about Ubuntu/Canonical Ltd. is that they haven’t been as successful in the marketplace as I’d like, i.e., they haven’t supplanted Microsoft! ☻ Bacon and company continue to work on that from a community angle.)


The interview with me in the book (numbered pages 492-495), conducted late 2011. The “cc-community” in the title of this post refers to a mailing list not mentioned in the interview.

You have been at the CC for a long time now. How did the organization look when you joined?

I joined CC in April, 2003, a few months after the first CC licenses were released. We were in the basement of the Stanford Law School, as that’s where Lawrence Lessig was. Various people had been involved over the preceding year, but essentially there were three staff just before I joined. There was a very loose community initially, based on the notoriety of Lessig and other founders and some friendly coverage in the usual (for the time) geek outlets such as Slashdot — more a variety of well-wishers than a community.

What kind of community did you set out to grow?

The other person CC hired in April, 2003 was our first international coordinator, based in Berlin. One community that we set out to grow, initially via this position, was a network of legal scholars around the world, who could collectively figure out how CC licenses work with copyright law in various jurisdictions around the world. This is the main community that CC was and is intentional about growing. We also set out to grow connections with related communities, eg open access, open education, open source, and mostly deliberately stayed away from trying to create “CC” subcommunities within these movements, and instead play a supporting role.

There always has been a mostly latent “CC community” of people who aren’t tied to a CC affiliate institution, and may or may not be involved with other nearby movements, but for whatever reason see CC as one of their primary passions — which is fantastic of course. CC the organization hasn’t ever really set out to “organize” this largely latent community, mostly due to lack of bandwidth (admittedly this could seem short sighted) and it isn’t clear how this community ought be cultivated — it is a very diverse set of people. I and some others see mobilizing this community (I’m actually more comfortable thinking about it as a movement) in some form as one of the biggest opportunities CC has in its next decade.

What approaches did you use to grow your community?

Regarding the international community of legal scholars we intentionally created, we gave them interesting, challenging, but highly delimited work — “porting” the CC license suite to their respective jurisdictions. (A “port” is usually both a linguistic translation and legal “translation” to reference local laws, drafting style, etc, where appropriate to hopefully make the ported licenses more understandable to the legal community in a given jurisdiction, but achieve the same affects to the extent possible.) This element of work made it relatively easy to determine what kind of team (usually composed of people from one or more local institutions) could be part of the formal community — they had to bring certain legal expertise, interest, and capacity — and gave community members a strong sense of ownership and contribution.

In the past 8 years CC licenses have been ported to over 50 jurisdictions via this process and community. In a sense this is just another instance of work occurring in chunks amenable to work being done by lots of different people, but I think the subject matter and large size and duration of the chunks makes it fairly interesting. Although many of the affiliate projects have formed their own local communities that have given feedback on license drafts, the overall process is highly controlled by experts, and openness to attracting and up-leveling drive-by contributors not much of a factor. This arrangement has been shown to not be competitive for building an encyclopedia, nor for most software and cultural projects, but perhaps should be evaluated if one thinks their project requires long-term commitment from a community with narrow and rare expertise.

Among the community involved in license porting, there has always been desire to also do advocacy and outreach, and sometimes art projects and software development. This has occurred organically, but over the last year or so we’ve also formally recognized those activities as potential responsibilities of a CC affiliate. While producing interesting work, a community that only really needs a few lawyers in each country is self-limiting. The aforementioned activities need unlimited resources, including the involvement of many more lawyers, who are crucial in persuading institutions and governments to adopt CC tools as policy, for example. Probably over the next few years there will be many more institutions and people officially involved in the CC community, with impressive outreach and projects around the world as a result.

The CC philosophy, particularly a few years ago, was fairly alien to the normal culture of content licensing and distribution practised by large record labels and studios. How did you communicate this message to your community?

Building a commons is still completely alien to “big content”; not even relevant really. Giving up the ability to legally persecute fans and users is a bridge too far for those whose dominant interest is protecting and milking existing revenue streams for however many quarters their horizon is. If it takes destroying the Internet to do that, so be it. This has to change, but the change won’t come from big content adopting CC licenses wholesale (though of course we appreciate when a progressive element does so for a project, and I’d be happy to be wrong), but through policy change that removes their ability to persecute fans. Have we reached “peak copyright” yet?

Communicating this to the CC community is not a challenge — they already knew how poorly aligned the interest and practice of big content and society are, and for many people this was a motivating factor for getting involved in CC.

The challenge has been figuring out where the commons can make a big difference, given the indifference-to-hostility of big content. The answer has arrived at fairly organically, learning both from the broader community (e.g., FLOSS, Wikipedians, the Open Access movement) and from the CC affiliate community’s work on institutional and government policy. The summary is that CC’s sweet spots are community and mass collaboration projects, where legal freedoms are necessary for a project to scale, just like in FLOSS, and in publicly interested policy, where the policymaker might be a funder, and institution, or a government. In both of these cases, the appropriate CC license or public domain tool is a standard, well understood and recognized instrument that can be made the legal basis of a project, or slotted into a broader policy intended to benefit the public, instead of engaging in expensive debate and reinvention — and there’s a big community of experts eager to help, wherever one is in the world.

There is a passionate CC community out there. How did you build a community that takes the CC ethos and spreads it further and advocating it to others?

Sharing, giving credit where due, valuing the common good, using technology to encourage such, not persecuting people who do those very natural things — things that one might recognized as “the CC ethos” — all precede CC. They’re essentially human. CC created some practical tools that one can use to further those ends and a brand that denotes such an ethos at our particular juncture in history. People would’ve been spreading that ethos in the same contexts CC is now — one can see an explosion of experiments in open content licensing in the years just before CC launched. Hopefully overall CC has made those people more effective than they would’ve been without a fairly high profile and well resourced (but tiny in the scheme of things) license steward, i.e., CC.

We did make an attempt approximately 2005-2008 to provide a nexus for open movements to meet and collaborate, a subsidiary called iCommons (now a small independent charity) that ran a series of “iSummits”. These turned out to be mostly useful for bringing the CC community together, so our next global gathering, which did not occur until September, 2011, made no pretense of being anything other than a CC summit. There remains huge opportunity to at appropriate times work together with other communities and movements with an overlapping ethos — more of that is happening, but slowly, and not under an umbrella brand.

CC is a now well established organization and community. How do you keep your community passionate about the CC and Free Culture?

Regarding the CC affiliate community (copyright and other experts mentioned above), carefully and collaboratively. Some of the core work by that community is changing — we’re working on version 4.0 of the CC license suite now, which has the aim of being unambiguously global — porting as it has been done so far may end, or at least will be a special case. We have to move and diversity the work of this community, and it has to be even more vital and challenging work, e.g. CC adoption as policy, leveraging CC’s reputation in nearby policy debates impactful to the commons, CC as a subject of legal, economic, and other research, and interfacing with WIPO and other international institutions. We have to strive to make CC a truly international organization itself. What this means for governance, staffing, fundraising, the structure of relationships with affiliates and other organizations — we don’t know yet, and will probably always be evolving.

Regarding the broader community and potential movement, the flip answer is that we don’t have to do anything. The passion is there, and free culture, open access, open education, etc, provide endless good news and opportunity for all interested — and occasionally we get a gift in the form of a ridiculously incorrect attack on CC from a big content executive — that fires everyone up. However, there’s a lot that we do, the single most important one being serving as a great license steward, which includes everything from explaining and answering questions to advocacy to actually getting the licenses “right” so that they’re the best tools for growing the commons. If our explanations of the licenses are confusing, or we have licenses that don’t serve to build the commons, it puts a real damper on the ability of the community to advocate and spread CC, and their passion for doing so.

The 4.0 process is also going to be crucial for engaging the broader community, and be a determinant of how much passion and energy we see from them over the next decade. My highest aspiration would be for the 4.0 licenses to have received overwhelming input and buy-in from both the broadest set of “netizens” (if I may use a 1990s term) interested in the common good and policymakers, forming a standard for info- and innovation-policy and norms for a generation. Coming anywhere near that goal will require lots of community organizing!

CC is a funded by donations. What approaches have you used to gather these donations?

So far the vast majority of our funding has come from U.S.-based private foundations. Our main effort for community support (which I consider the most healthy form of funding, and should over time become the most important pillar) has consisted of an annual fall campaign, mostly conducted online — think a micro version of the Wikimedia fundraising campaigns that most readers should have seen. CC has a lot of learning and growth to do here. The main reason to cultivate the CC community is that doing will be instrumental for accomplishing our mission — but it is true that we hope that a portion of the community has the means and feels our work is important enough to donate each year.

If you enjoyed that, check out the other community case book interviews: Linus Torvalds, Linux; Mike Shinoda, Linkin Park; Mårten Mickos, MySQL and Eucalyptus; Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media; Carolyn Mellor, X.commerce, PayPal, and eBay; Ilan Rabinovitch, Southern California Linux Expo; Richard Esguerra, Humble Indie Bundle; Mark Bussler, Classic Game Room; Mary Colvig, Mozilla; Dries Buytaert, Drupal and Acquia; and James Spafford, Media Molecule.

If you enjoyed the book, Bacon also runs community leadership conferences.