Post Economics

Question Public Domain Day

Friday, January 1st, 2016

I forgot last year to re-affirm (2014; includes links to previous years’ public domain day posts):

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

With that out of the way, I want to question the public domain of works that were subject to copyright upon publication but no longer are due to expiration of the term of copyright. Public Domain Day celebrates such works no longer subject to the private censorship regime as of January 1 each year, and mourns the lack of such work in some jurisdictions such as the United States (none 1999-2019, unless another retroactive extension pushes the date back further).

  1. Copyright is unjust. Works created under that regime are tainted. Extreme position: the disappearing of works subject to copyright is a good, for those works are toxic for having been created under the unjust regime. Compare with born free works, initially released under a free/open license (i.e., creators substantially opted out of regime). Even born free works were created in the context of an unjust regime but we have to start somewhere.
  2. Born free works are a start at re-shaping the knowledge economy away from dependence on the unjust regime, a re-shaping which is necessary to transfer prestige and power away from industries and works dependent upon the unjust regime and towards commons-based production. Works falling out of copyright due to expiration do not tilt the knowledge economy toward commons-based production. Worse, copyright-expired works distract from the urgent need to produce cultural relevance for born free works.
  3. Celebrating works falling out of copyright celebrates the terrible “bargain” of subjecting knowledge to property regimes (harming freedom, equality, and security) in order to incent the over-production of spectacle. Compare with born free works, which provide evidence of the non-necessity of subjecting knowledge to freedom infringing regimes.

Note the title of this post starts with “question” rather than “against” — my aim is not really to claim that copyright mitigation through measures such as limited terms of restriction is bad (as noted above, such a claim really would be extreme, in the sense of being very difficult to justify) but to encourage prioritization of systematic repair through commons-based production. There are many (but not nearly enough) people with commitments to copyright mitigations, limited terms in particular, and use of term expired works even more particularly. Further, there presumably will be some attempt at further retroactive extension in the U.S. before 2019, and though I will probably complain about non-visionary rear guard actions, I don’t doubt that stopping bad developments such as further retroactive extension is in the short term relatively easy and should be done.

Thus this “questioning” leads me to merely want:

  • Copyright mitigations to be useful for commons-based production (limited terms are such; contrast with many mitigations which make using works possibly subject to copyright somewhat less costly but not in a way which is useful for commons-based production).
  • Commons-based production efforts to actually take advantage of newly unrestricted works to a greater extent than freedom infringing industries do. Wikimedia projects (especially Wikisource and Wikimedia Commons, with cultural relevance via Wikipedia) do an excellent job, but meeting this very tall order probably requires many additional hugely successful initiatives that are able to create cultural relevance for free works, including works falling into the public domain and works building on such.
  • Making repair part of knowledge policy discourse, at least on the part of liberalizing reformers: a debate about mitigation or opposition to expansion is always an opportunity to position and advocate for repair; that is favoring commons-based production. This could lead to contemplation of what I’d consider a genuine political bargain: allow works subject to copyright to remain so but favor commons-based production for new works.

Happy GNU Year & Public Domain Days

Bonus: Help create 2016/2017 holiday greetings that build free cultural relevance.

Research Ideas, Inputs, Impacts and Outcomes, Outputs

Saturday, December 26th, 2015

I’ve previously cheered Daniel Mietchen’s efforts to promote open access research proposals. Mietchen, with fellow researcher/OA activist Ross Mounce and ecologist/academic publisher Lyubomir Penev have recently launched Research Ideas and Outcomes (I sometimes misremember the name; title of this post may help others afflicted find RIO), a new open access mega journal that provides a venue for publishing the entire research cycle for almost any field of research.

The Wikidata for Research proposal that Mietchen also spearheaded and I again cheered is one of the first artifacts published in RIO.

I encourage everyone to read RIO’s opening editorial, Publishing the research process. I want to especially highlight the “highlighting social impact” section by making a copy:

Given that much of research is publicly funded and that public funding is limited, there is a growing interest in assessing the impact that research has on society beyond academia and in having this criterion influence decisions on whether and how public funds are to be spent on specific lines or fields of research (Roy 1985, Bornmann 2012, Reich and Myhrvold 2013).

Despite past criticisms of similar initiatives (e.g. Wright 2002), some researchers have called for support from the scientific community for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, seeing their role in “help[ing] to integrate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms into policy-making at all levels and ensure that information about our planet is easily available to all.” (Lu et al. 2015)

RIO addresses societal impact in several ways: (i) it is free to read, so that anyone interested can actually access it, (ii) it is openly licensed (CC BY 4.0 by default, with an option for CC0/Public Domain), so as to encourage the dissemination and reuse of its materials in other contexts, (iii) it is available in XML, which facilitates reuse by automated tools and integration with other platforms, (iv) it encourages authors to map their research to societal challenges it helps to address (and allows users to search and browse the journal by societal challenges they are interested in).

While the first three of these publishing practices are on the way to becoming standard in a growing range of disciplines, we are not aware of other journals to engage in the fourth one, but we encourage them to do so.

As another way to achieve societal impact, it has been suggested that researchers engage more in writing overview papers that summarize the state of knowledge in their field in a way that is accessible (in multiple senses of the word) to a broader audience, and that research evaluators should take such activities into account (Bornmann and Marx 2013). With that in mind, RIO offers the possibility to publish such overview papers as Policy Briefs.

When thinking of impact outside academia, another useful strategy is to bring research to places where non-academics might look for information. RIO will thus facilitate the creation of Wikipedia articles (Butler 2008, Logan et al. 2010), both on topics that have just been created through advances of scholarship (i.e. new methods or objects of study; e.g. RNA families, as in Daub et al. 2008) or on topics that have been studied for a while but not yet found decent coverage on the English Wikipedia (as pioneered for computational biology; Wodak et al. 2012).

Finally, RIO’s policies have been written with societal benefits in mind: they default to open sharing of all data and code underlying the research reported here and require public justification for exceptions to the open default. The primary effect of such an open default is an increase in the reproducibility and replicability and thus the reliability of research: the more of research workflows is being shared and the earlier the sharing occurs, the harder it will be for mistakes, systematic errors or fraud to go unnoticed. A welcome side effect of this is an increased educational value of the research and its documentation, and over time, we expect learners and educators, practitioners, journalists, artists, makers and others to engage with the research reported in RIO and with the associated data, code and materials.

RIO has a blog post on emphasizing research contribution to, e.g., the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I wholly endorse this emphasis, but the above excerpt is far richer, as it additionally tackles the social impact of academic publishing, which affects the social impact of all research. Not only does the secton cover the (should be) obvious open (free access, free permission, to/for forms suitable for modification) dimensions, but the huge opportunity to make research more accessible through summarization and cooperation with Wikipedians.

The only way the section could be improved would be for it to also mention macro impacts of commoning the knowledge economy, e.g., on equality and security. But I can’t blame the authors as I don’t know of great citations on these topics. I love Copyright and Inequality but it isn’t about research publications. I’ve got nothing on academic publishing and security, though recently widely discussed The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work is related. Please help correct my ignorance by pointing me at more on-point citations for these topics or by creating ones…why not start by publishing a proposal for such research in RIO?

Well, there is one other way the section could be improved: a mention of commoning academic publishing infrastructure. But, the software that runs RIO is not open source. I’d love to see a proposal published in RIO for funding whatever work would be needed to make the RIO platform open source.

If you’re interested in getting involved in RIO, you can apply to be a subject editor or editorial apprentice (see links on the RIO home page). If you’re working on any of the research or proposals mentioned in the two previous paragraphs and there’s any way I might be able to help, feel free to get in touch. I’m not an academic but am very keen to see progress in these areas!

Software Freedom Conservancy 2015

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

Software Freedom Conservancy is running its 2nd annual (last year) individual supporter campaign. We need 750 supporters (at US$120 each) to keep the lights on (continue serving as a non-profit charitable home for free/open source software projects…assuming we manage to stay alive, some exciting new member projects will be joining in 2016) and 2500 to take on new GPL enforcement work. See the Conservancy news item and blog post announcing the campaign last month.

Conservancy supporter Sumana Harihareswara made a great video explaining why you should also support Conservancy. [Added 20151228: blog post with transcript]

The news item above includes a list of 2015 accomplishments. My second favorite is Outreachy (“helps people from groups underrepresented in free and open source software get involved”) joining as the first member project that isn’t strictly a software development project. My favorite is a link away from the main list. The list notes that Conservancy joined a one-page comment urging the FCC to not restrict wireless devices to manufacturer-provided software. That’s good, but the blog post about the comment notes that Conservancy leaders Karen Sandler and Bradley Kuhn also signed a much more interesting and extensive comment proposing an alternate regulatory regime of requiring fully auditable software and ongoing security updates, almost mandating supported free software (but not quite, for the comment doesn’t call for mandating free copyright licensing) for approved devices. This is by far the most important document on software freedom produced this year and I urge everyone to read it. I’ve copied most of the alternative proposal below (it starts on page 12, and is followed by many pages of endorsers):

In place of these regulations, we suggest that the Commission adopt rules to foster innovation and improve security and usage of the Wi-Fi spectrum for everybody.

Specifically, we advocate that rather than denying users the ability to make any changes to the router whatsoever, router vendors be required to open access to their code (especially code that controls RF parameters) to describe and document the safe operating bounds for the software defined radios within the Wi-Fi router.

In this alternative approach, the FCC could mandate that:

  1. Any vendor of SDR, wireless, or Wi-Fi radio must make public the full and maintained source code for the device driver and radio firmware in order to maintain FCC compliance. The source code should be in a buildable, change controlled source code repository on the Internet, available for review and improvement by all.
  2. The vendor must assure that secure update of firmware be working at shipment, and that update streams be under ultimate control of the owner of the equipment. Problems with compliance can then be fixed going forward by the person legally responsible for the router being in compliance.
  3. The vendor must supply a continuous stream of source and binary updates that must respond to regulatory transgressions and Common Vulnerability and Exposure reports (CVEs) within 45 days of disclosure, for the warranted lifetime of the product, the business lifetime of the vendor, or until five years after the last customer shipment, whichever is longer.
  4. Failure to comply with these regulations should result in FCC decertification of the existing product and, in severe cases, bar new products from that vendor from being considered for certification.
  5. Additionally, we ask the FCC to review and rescind any rules for anything that conflict with open source best practices, produce unmaintainable hardware, or cause vendors to believe they must only shipundocumented “binary blobs” of compiled code or use lockdown mechanisms that forbid user patching. This is an ongoing problem for the Internet community committed to best practice change control and error correction on safety-critical systems.

This path has the following advantages:

  • Inspectability – Skilled developers can verify the correctness of software drivers that are now hidden in binary “blobs”.
  • Opportunity for innovation – Many experiments can be performed to make the network “work better” without affecting compliance.
  • Improved spectrum utilization – A number of techniques to improve the use of Wi-Fi bands remain theoretical possibilities. Field trials with these proposed algorithms could prove (or disprove) their utility, and advance the science of networking.
  • Fulfillment of legal (GPL) obligations -Allowing router vendors to publish their RF-controlling source code in compliance with the license under which they obtained it will free them from the legal risk of being forced to cease shipping code for which they no longer have a license.

Requiring all manufacturers of Wi-Fi devices to make their source code publicly available and regularly maintained, levels the playing field as no one can behave badly. The recent Volkswagen scandal with uninspected computer code that cheated emissions testing demonstrates that this is a real concern.

Why is this so important?

  • It isn’t purely a rear-guard action aiming to stop a bad regulation.
  • It proposes a commons-favoring regulatory regime.
  • It does so in an extremely powerful public regulatory context.
  • It makes a coherent argument for the advantages of its approach; it tries to win a policy argument.
  • The advantages are compelling.

Yes, the last three points are in contrast with relying on an extremely weak and resource poor private regulatory hack which substitutes developer caprice for a public policy argument. But not entirely: the last advantage mentions this hack. I doubt we’ll reach the 2500 supporters required to pursue new hack (GPL) enforcement, but please prove me wrong. Whether you love, hate, or exploit the GPL, enforcement works for you.

Please join Sumana Harihareswara, me, and a who’s who of free/open source software in supporting Conservancy’s work. The next $50,000 in donations are being matched by Private Internet Access.

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.

No peace, no justice

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

Revolution is an invitation to trolls, subjects non-combatants to depredation, is usually crushed and otherwise usually produces another tyranny, and abets impoverishing cycles of conflict. No revolution should be celebrated, including one producing a long-lived and relatively non-tyrannical (in some respects) state such as the United States. All revolutionaries should be condemned as atavistic accomplices to attempted mass murder, that is when not actual mass murderers. No revolution should be celebrated.

There are many ways to work toward justice or other top political value. Eschewing peaceful means for revolution is sociopathic. This is especially the case for a privileged elite such as the “founding fathers” of the United States, and anyone reading this.

Last year, 2007, and related in 2005.

Ideas for limiting civic extortion, one in US 2016 federal budget proposal?

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

How to Stop the Stadium Wars (2015-03-17):

Or better yet: The next time the Cobb County Braves decide they’re ready to spin the Wheel of Taxpayer Subsidy, we should all hope the whole practice has become illegal.

That’s what the Obama administration proposed in its budget last month: to end the issuance of tax-free government bonds for professional sports facilities, a practice that has, according to research by Bloomberg, siphoned $17 billion of public money into arenas for NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL franchises over the last 30 years and cost Americans $4 billion in forgone federal taxes on top of that. It’s too late for residents of Cobb County, but Congress might yet save the rest of us some dough.

After an initial attempt in the 1960s to steer government bonds toward true public works, Congress placed a provision in the 1986 Tax Reform Act that seemed sure to kill tax-free, no-limit stadium deals. It had exactly the opposite effect. Essentially, qualifying projects now need either to serve public uses or to rely on public funding. With pro sports facilities, the former is obviously impossible, so the latter, though politically improbable, has become the way billionaire team owners retain access to cheap government financing. Cities and counties wound up borrowing more for their teams than ever before.

It’s been clear for decades that new stadiums don’t bring the business they promise, let alone enough economic activity to justify the investment. It’s a ruse, but it works because public officials are more worried about being blamed for the loss of a team in the short run than, say, for failing public schools in the long run. And it works because the country has more big cities and rich counties than sports teams in each league, so that even if Cincinnati taxpayers wise up, their counterparts in Austin will step in.

Obama’s budget isn’t the first national political effort to impose federal taxes on stadium deals. New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed ending the loophole in 1996, and it’s been kicked around in committee since. But with groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity now opposing stadium deals at the local level, Obama’s idea has a chance of gaining bipartisan support.

Additional sources mentioned the proposal in February and March. I do not see more recent mentions. Is it surviving? The linked article mentions some lower status proposals (I’ve bolded the proposals, also above):

One solution, instead, could be to change the way teams operate, either by bringing antitrust suits against the leagues (which sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has suggested) or by allowing cities to exert greater control over their brands (as law professor Mitchell Nathanson has imagined). Should names like the Irving Cowboys, the East Rutherford Giants, and the Orchard Park Bills be forced upon suburban squads? In his 2000 book Leveling the Playing Field, Harvard Law professor Paul Weiler fantasizes about a nationwide union of cities that could lock out pro sports teams to obtain a league-imposed “stadium cap” on taxpayer subsidies, which would effectively end bidding wars.

The article also links to Should we ban states and cities from offering big tax breaks for jobs? (2014-09-15) which includes more general ideas:

Unilateral disarmament is a tough political proposition. As a systemic solution, Funkhouser advocates instead some kind of national law, what he loosely envisions as a domestic equivalent of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans bribes of foreign officials to obtain business. At the very least, he says, we should hold accountable officials and chief executives who promise jobs and economic gain — for which a community has paid dearly — that never materialize.

LeRoy doesn’t realistically expect any federal law any time soon. But he suggests a more modest alternative. In the mid 1980s, the federal government threatened to withhold a share of federal highway funds from any state that didn’t enforce a legal drinking age of 21. We should do the same today around economic development incentives, LeRoy says: withhold 10 percent of some coveted federal funding stream — maybe Community Development Block Grants — from states that actively poach jobs from each other.

Add these to my preferred limitations on civic extortion for stadiums (no copyright for events in subsidized venues) and generally (ban based on a modern conception of the U.S. constitution’s import-export clause).

Apparently it is looking more likely that more than one professional sports team will leave Oakland for locations willing to give billionaires greater subsidies. Good riddance! Though I am a little bit sad that the people of other cities that I like (e.g., Los Angeles) will lose out, tempting as it is to blame their politicians and publics.

Speaking of Los Angeles, film location/movie production subsidies are another high visibility extortion that ought be vulnerable to a similar range of targeted or general limitations.

Democratizing Wikimedia Innovation

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Through the end of this month the Wikimedia community is electing 3 members of the Wikimedia Foundation board. You qualify to vote if you’ve made at least 300 edits before April 15 and 20 between October 15 and April 15 to any Wikimedia project.

If you don’t quality to vote, it won’t be hard to do so for next time if you get started now: Log in or create an account and be bold when you see a typo, incorrect or missing information in a Wikipedia article. Familiarize yourself with Wikipedia’s sibling projects; edits to any of them count. Play the Wikidata Game. I heartily recommend doing these things as a matter of learning and sharing knowledge regardless of desire to vote in Wikimedia elections or lower threshold and more fun votes such as for the Wikimedia Commons Picture of the Year. The current election is just an excuse for inserting this Public Service Announcement. ;-)

If you do qualify to vote, please do. I voted for Denny Vrandečić and give him the strongest possible endorsement. I also voted for and endorse James Heilman.

The election uses approval/disapproval ratio to determine winners, so disapproval votes are powerful. I made a few but don’t want to publish because frankly all of the candidates are excellent and extremely qualified for a Wikimedia Foundation community board seat.

community-centered theory of changeThe central issue in this election is evident in the Candidate statements, discussion, structured Q&A (1, 2, 3, 4), in a series of blog posts by Pete Forsyth (who was briefly a candidate but stepped aside), and outside the context of the current election, in blog posts by Lane Raspberry and Nimish Gautam., and the one message I’ve sent on the issue, which the first paragraph of Vrandečić’s candidate statement sums up:

Wikimedia is a modern wonder – and yet, it must change: most of our projects, as they are today, cannot truly succeed. To achieve our mission, we must increase the effectivity of every single contributor. At the same time, the communities are often seen as change resistant – but falsely so: they do welcome change, done right, as I have shown with Wikidata.

Along these lines, I especially commend Vrandečić’s and Heilman’s answers to the following Q&A topics: Use of Superprotect and respect for community consensus, Retaining current volunteers versus recruiting new ones, Improving content, and Diversity and scope.

It’s commonplace for central organizations (of which I am a fan) to neglect or denigrate communities they serve, whether the relationship is one of collaboration, constituency, or consumption. Sometimes a version of neglect is even the right behavior, e.g., a product or project with some users may need to be EOL’d. But most organizations could do much better. It is essential that the Wikimedia Foundation do so, as the people who edit or otherwise contribute to the various Wikimedia projects are its key competitive advantage. If Wikimedia and other commons-based peer production projects are to stay relevant, nevermind helping achieve world liberation, they need to figure out how to become more effective, starting with embracing the idea that most of the vision and innovation needed to do so will come from the community, not the central organizations, and implementation done in partnership with the community.

Unrelated to the community issue, I’ve previously blog cheered Vrandečić’s and Heilman’s work on Wikidata and Wikipedia/medical journal collaboration respectively.

Tangential ex-Wikimedia Foundation links:

I was very sad to read that Erik Moeller recently left the foundation, where he was Deputy Director. Though he seemed to endorse the organization/community vision dichotomy (my one message linked above is a mailing list reply to him), in my view he is perhaps the best example in the Wikimedia universe of community vision — he had written about and many cases prototyped most of the innovations the foundation is still working on implementing, many years later, before becoming an employee.

Moeller has since started a podcast, interviewing another ex-Wikimedia Foundation person, Sumana Harihareswara, for the first episode.

Harihareswara has two recent posts on Crooked Timber, Codes of conduct and the trade-offs of copyleft and Where are the women in the history of open source? I found them both very interesting and left comments.

Former Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner is now “developing a strategic plan for and with the Tor Project” and separately researching “the broader state of ‘freedom tech’ — all the tools and technologies that enable free speech, free assembly, and freedom of the press.” That’s great news; Tor and other ‘freedom tech’ tools are incredibly exciting and important. But, a moment of critical cheering: as I noted around the time Gardner stepped down as WMF ED, I’m inclined to think that re-routing the knowledge economy is even more important than tools that can route around censorship for a good future. The former is what Wikimedia projects do.

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.

Apple watch

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Apple Watch official logoApple epitomizes the future we’re choosing by way of treating knowledge as property: gross inequality and hierarchical control, but amazing, such that it is hard to imagine a different arrangement. (I argue very different arrangements concerning knowledge are possible and some would produce much better outcomes — freedom and equality — and some would produce much worse, but still be considered amazing, as they would be relative to the past — knowledge policy is a point of incredible leverage in either direction.)

I don’t watch Apple closely at all, but occasionally a headline catches my eye, as two have recently.

  • Android share of smartphone profits plummets to 11 percent. 89% of smartphone profits go to Apple, despite shipping only 19.7% of smartphones. Of course there are other contributing factors, but these numbers suggest to me something about the surplus obtained by producers and consumers in the case of proprietary (iOS) and open source (Android) operating systems, and the resulting concentration of wealth toward owners of the former.
  • Apple Is Now More Than Double the Size of Exxon—And Everyone Else. That’s by market capitalization, around $750 billion. As the article notes, IBM in 1983-1985 had more than double the market cap of any other company. Knowledge as property driven wealth concentration is not at all new, but I suspect it is increasing as knowledge becomes unambiguously the commanding heights and we shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy (transition captured in pithy phrases such as “data is the new oil” and “software is eating the world”) and knowledge is increasingly subject to various freedom infringing (intellectual property) regimes, and I suspect that more people are recognizing this.

In the more people department, I’ve noticed in the last day:

Now these two are largely making stereotypical contemporary political points for or against state activity respectively (the latter by proxy of claiming Democrats don’t really care about inequality) and not demanding a fundamental shift away from property as the regime governing knowledge (the former demands a ‘golden share’ of intellectual property derived profits for the state). But I’d be very happy to see both “sides” embrace such a shift. Demanding that government and government-funded knowledge not be treated as property is a good start.


My ironic edit of 5 reasons you should never buy an Apple Watch, pointing out that control and inequality appear to be marvelous.

6 reasons for GPL lovers, haters, exploiters, and others to enjoy and support GPL enforcement

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Linux kernel developer Christoph Hellwig today filed a lawsuit against VMware (NYSE:VMW; US$36 billion market cap) due to their long time refusal to observe the terms of the GPL when incorporating code by Hellwig into their kernel, which remains proprietary. If VMware observed the GPL’s terms, their kernel including all source would be released under the GPL. This is a significant case, in part due to the rarity of GPL enforcement lawsuits. Details on the website of Software Freedom Conservancy, which is coordinating and funding (you can help) this action.

If the GPL is rarely enforced, its differentiation from non-copyleft licenses such as MIT, BSD, and Apache is muted. Why should you support license differentiation and thus GPL enforcement?

  1. You think copyleft is a wonderful hack, a productive and even necessary strategy for protecting and expanding the software commons. No enforcement makes the hack buggy: rarely executing and easily circumvented. So of course you want enforcement.
  2. You think copyleft curtails freedom, and ironically hampers the software commons — intractable incompatibility means software can’t be freely mixed, and the attempt to prevent capture by proprietary software interests only abets capture of the field by intellectual parasite lawyer interests. Your efforts to persuade developers and companies that they should avoid GPL software at all costs (up to reimplementation) in preference to permissive and public domain instruments can only be enhanced by prominent GPL enforcement by lawsuit.
  3. You think copyleft is great for software business, as one can acquire users by offering GPL software, then acquire customers by shaking down users who could conceivably not be observing the GPL to the letter. Public GPL enforcement makes your salespeople more compelling.

Among people who have any opinion about copyleft, I’m pretty sure there are very few who accept more than one of the above thoughts. I enjoy all three (the third looks like a sin tax to me). My point here is that people who completely disagree on the purpose and efficacy of copyleft ought all be excited and supportive of copyleft enforcement. But there are additional, less commonly discussed reasons:

  1. You think strong copyleft encourages more people to release free software, people who would not be comfortable with releasing under a non-copyleft license, whether because they fear piracyproprietarization more than obscurity (some overlap with 1 above), or because they want to make wealthy entities pay (lots of overlap with 3 above). Strong copyleft serves as the NonCommercial of the software world (without being fundamentally broken like NC, though the most radical believers in 2 above might disagree) in that it increases the range of licensing options to meet the preferences of both those who fear exploitation by business, and those who want to exploit business. Strong copyleft isn’t so strong without enforcement, so anyone who understands the value of this differentiation should want it to be strengthened by enforcement actions.
  2. You think copyleft-for-x is needed for some non-software field (or hear such thoughts expressed; e.g., for seeds or hardware designs, even real property), but the details of how copyleft works are a bit fuzzy. Enforcement by lawsuit is where the rubber meets the road, so you should enjoy the demystification provided by such actions and support them. Also, successful copyleft enforcement will stoke more people to have desires for copyleft-for-x, thus increasing your community of people intent on figuring out the “for-x” part.
  3. You think copyleft is most usefully considered as a prototype for and test of rules that ought be enforced by more effective regulatory mechanisms. Whether you think software provided without source and permissions should be totally banned, not regulated at all, or only regulated for particular uses or in particular fields (e.g., products and services already subject to other safety, disclosure, and pro-competition or consumer protection requirements), it is absurd to think that developer whim and resources in applying and enforcing the GPL regulates and regulates effectively an optimal set of software. It is time to move beyond debate of a hack of state-deputized private censorship as central to software freedom politics and policy, and on to debating directly state vs. market regulation of software (with all the usual arguments about (in)adequacy of market provision and harm/help of state intervention) as in any field of importance, preferably with very strong commons-favoring bias from both sides (e.g., software freedom market-skeptics and state-skeptics ought agree that regulation by private censorship, which serves proprietary interests almost exclusively, be wound down, and that state entities self-regulate by mandating software freedom for everything they acquire and fund). Unenforced copyleft means the rules prototyped are untested, reducing salience of the prototype, so you also should enjoy GPL enforcement actions.

I enjoy these latter 3 reasons especially, perhaps especially because few other people seem to (I’m eager to be or become wrong about this).

Go help Software Freedom Conservancy support Hellwig’s enforcement against VMware, or tell me why I’m wrong. Note I’m on Software Freedom Conservancy’s board and endorse all of their work, but as usual, this blog post represents only my opinion. Of the reasons to support enforcement above, they’d agree with 1; probably find 2 and 3 and maybe 4 objectionable; 5 and 6 perhaps curious but distant from work in today’s trenches. Again, my point is that many more people than those who agree with 1 (copyleft for good), even those who totally disagree with 1, should enjoy and support GPL enforcement.

The lawsuit will probably be heavily covered in the technology press, but you can read some early discussions now at LWN.net, Hacker News, and reddit. You can also read about copyleft in general at copyleft.org (another Software Freedom Conservancy project; my take).