Post Free Speech

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

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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.

Annual thematic doubt 2

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

My second annual thematic doubt post, expressing doubts I have about themes I blogged about during 2014.

commons ⇄ freedom, equality ⇄ good future

Same as last year, my main topic has been “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.”

Rather than repeating the three doubts I expressed last year under the heading “intellectual freedom” (my evaluation of these has not much changed), I will take the subject from a different angle: the “theory of change” I have been espousing. This theory is not new to me. Essentially it is what attracted me to following the free software movement circa 1990 — its potential of extensive, pro-freedom socio-economic reform from the bottom up. That and wanting to run a unix-like on my computer — a want satisfied without respect to freedom as soon as I could use a Sun workstation at work, and for many years now would have been satisfied by OS X. I never cared very much about being able to read, modify, and share all of the software on my computer — the socio-economic implications of those capabilities make them interesting, to me. The claimed ends of the theory are in the ‘for a good future’ slogan I’ve occasionally used at least since 1998. I occasionally included the theory in blog posts (2006) and presentations (2008). Much of my ‘critical cheering’ last year (doubt) and before has largely been about my perhaps unreasonable wish that ‘free/open’ organizations and movements would take the theory I do and act as I think follows. I could easily be wrong on the theory or best actions it implies. Accordingly, I ratcheted down critical cheering in 2014; hopefully most but not all of what remained was relatively fun or novel. Instead I focused more sharply on the theory, e.g., in Sleepwalking past Freedom’s Commons, or how peer production could increase democracy, equality, freedom, and innovation, all of them!

The theory could be attacked from a number of angles — I’d love to see that done and learn of new vulnerabilities. For example, commons might not significantly affect freedom and equality, these may not be the right values, and one might consider a ‘good future’ to be one with maximum hierarchy, spectacle, even war (I repeatedly argue that future tech and culture will be marvels in most plausible futures, and that is a reason to reject ones that do not have freedom and equality as top values, but also something that makes it hard to see how a future — or present — could be different or better with more knowledge economy/policy-driven freedom and equality). But this isn’t a cheap refutation post (see below) and I don’t have very practical doubts about those values and what they imply constitutes a good future.

But I do have practical doubts about the first leg of the theory. Summary of that leg before getting to doubts: Commons-based knowledge production simultaneously destroys rents dependent on freedom infringing regimes, diminishing the constituency for those regimes, grows the constituency and policy imagination for freedom respecting regimes, and not least, directly increases freedom and equality.


  • Effects could be too small to matter, or properly attributed to generational or other competition among firms, not commons-based production. Consider Wikipedia, a success of commons-based production if there is one. Such success may not be possible in other sectors, especially ones that command top policy attention (drugs and movies) — policy imagination has not been increased. The traditional encyclopedia industry was already mostly destroyed by Microsoft Encarta when Wikipedia came along. The encyclopedia industry was not a significant constituency for freedom infringing regimes, so its destruction matters not for future policy. Encyclopedias were readily accessible at libraries, vastly more useful info of the sort found in encyclopedias is accessible online now, excluding Wikipedia, and ‘freedoms’ to modify and distribute are just not relevant nearly all humans.
  • I claim that the best knowledge policy reform is that which favors commons and that the reforms traditionally proposed by copyright and patent reformers are relatively futile because such proposals if implemented would not significantly change the knowledge economy to produce freedom and equality nor grow the constituencies for such changes — rather they are just about who, how, and for how much the outputs of production under freedom infringing regimes may be used — so-called balance, not the tilt I demand. But perhaps the usual set of reform proposals is the best that can be hoped for, especially given decades of discourse and organization-building around those proposals, and almost none about commons-favoring reform. Further, perhaps the usual set of reform proposals is best without qualification — commons-based production is a culturally marginal (in software; wholly irrelevant in most other sectors) arrangement that ought be totally ignored by policy.
  • Various (sometimes semi-) free/open movements within various sectors (e.g., software, education, research publication) are having some policy successes, without (as far as I know) usually considering themselves to be as or more central to shaping knowledge policy as usual things fitting under ‘copyright reform’ and ‘patent reform’ but this could be just what needs to happen. The important thing is that commons-based knowledge production entities act to further their interests with minimal distance from current policy discourse, not that they have any distracting and possibly discrediting theory about doing so relative to overall knowledge policy.

Only the first of these gives me serious pause, though my discounting the last two might be a matter of (dis)taste — my feeling is that most of the people involved thoroughly identify with the trivia of copyright, patent, and similar law, even if they think those laws need serious reform, and act as if commons-based production is something to be protected from reform in the bad direction, but not at all central. Sadly if my feeling is accurate, the second and third doubts probably ought give me more pause than they do.

Despite these doubts, the potential huge win-win (freedom and equality, without conflict) of reorienting the knowledge economy and policy around commons-based production makes robust discourse (at the least) on this possibility urgent, even if tilt probability is low. One of the things that makes me favor this approach is that reform can be very incremental — indeed, it is by far the most feasible reform of any proposed — we just need a lot more of it. Push-roll towards tilt!

The most damning observation is perhaps that I’m only talking, and mostly on this very blog. I should change my ways, but again, this is not a cheap refutation post.

Software Freedom/Futurism/Science Fantasy

I recently wrote that “it’s much easier to take software freedom as a serious issue of top importance if one has a ‘futurist’ bent. This will also figure in a forthcoming post from me casting doubt on everything in this post and the rest from 2014.”

How important are computers to human arrangements, and how large is the range of plausible computer-involved arrangements, and how much can those realized be changed? Should anyone besides programmers and enthusiasts care about software specifically, any more or less than they care about the conditions under which any tool is created and distributed? (Contrast with other tools would be good here, but I’ll leave for another time.)

The vast majority of people seem to treat software as any other tool — they want it to work as well as possible, and to be as cheap as possible, the only difference being that their intuitions about quality and cost of software may be worse than their intuitions for the quality and cost of, for example, bridges. Arguably nearly everyone has been and perhaps still is correct.

But one doesn’t need to be much of a futurist to see software getting much more important — organizations good at using software ‘eating’ the lunches of those less good at using software, software embedded in everything or designing everything (and anything else being obsolete), regulating and mediating every sort of arrangement — with lots of plausible variation as to how this happens.

Now the doubt: does future-motivated interest in software freedom share more with interest in science fiction (i.e., moralistic fantasy) or with interest in future studies and the many parts of various social sciences that aim to improve systems going forward in addition to understanding current and past ones? If the latter, why is software freedom ignored by all of these fields? Possibly most people who do think software is becoming very important are not convinced that software freedom is an important dimension to consider. If so (I would love to see some kind of a review on the matter) it would be most reasonable to follow the academic consensus (even if it is one of omission; that consensus being of software freedom not interesting or important enough to investigate) and if one cares about the ethical dimensions of software, focus instead on the ones the consensus says are important.

Two additional posts last year in which I claim software freedom is of outsized and underappreciated importance (of course I don’t usually restrict myself to only software, but consider software a large and growing part of knowledge embodying cumulative innovation, and of the knowledge economy leading to more such accumulation) and some of many from years past (2006, 2006, 2007, 2007). The first from 2006 highlights the most obvious problem with the future. I had forgotten about that post when mentioning displacement of movies by some other form as the height of culture in 2013 — one has to squint to see such displacement even beginning yet. The second isn’t about the future but is closely related: alternative history.

Uncritical Cheering

I feared that many of my posts last year were uncritical cheering (see critical cheering above and last year). Looking back at posts where I’m promoting something, I have usually included or at least hinted at some amount of criticism (e.g., 1 2). I don’t feel too bad. But know that most of the things I promote on my blog are very likely to fail or otherwise be inconsequential — if they were sufficiently mainstream and established they’d be sufficiently covered elsewhere, and I likely wouldn’t bother blogging about them.

One followup: I cheered the publication of the first formally peer-reviewed and edited Wikipedia article in Open Medicine — a journal which has since ceased publishing.

Freeway 980

I continue to blog about removing freeway 980, which cuts through the oldest parts of Oakland. Doubt: I don’t know whether full removal would be better (at least when considering feasibility) than capping the portion of 980 which is below grade. I intended to read about freeway capping, come to some informed opinion, and blog about it. I have not, but supposedly Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf has mentioned removing 980. Hopefully that will spur much more qualified people to publish analyses of various options for my reading pleasure. ConnectOakland is a website dedicated to one removal/fill scenario.


I’m satisfied enough with the doubt in my two posts about Mozilla’s leadership debacle, but I’ll note apparent tension between fostering ideological diversity and shunning people who would deny some people basic freedoms. I don’t think this one was fairly clear cut, but there are doubtless far more difficult cases in the world.

Instead of doubt, I’d like to clarify my intention with two other posts: thought experiment/provocation, serious demand.


I fell further behind, producing no new dedicated collections of refutations of my 8+ year old posts. My very next post will be one, but as with previous such posts, the refutations will be cheap — flippant rather than drilling down on doubts I may have gained over the years. Again these observations (late, cheap) are what led me last year to initiate a thematic doubt post covering the immediately previous year. How was this one?

What is the attribution revolution?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 suggested tweet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not pay copyright holders, for a good future

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

The Unrepentant Bootlegger profiles Hana Beshara, a founder of NinjaVideo, who spent 16 months in prison for defying censorship. Cut to the logic of censorship (emphasis added):

People watch more paid, legal content than ever, but they also continue to download huge amounts of illegal content. “Piracy is putting pressure on antiquated business models, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” said Brett Danaher, an economics professor at Wellesley College who studies Internet piracy. “But the prevalence of piracy shows that people are growing up in a culture of free, and that is not good for the future of entertainment, either.”

That we should be concerned for the future of entertainment, at all, is itself bizarre. Freedom and equality should absolutely trump incentivizing a surfeit of entertainment. If we must choose between spectacle and communications, spectacle should be destroyed. We do not need to choose. We can destroy the censorship regime, but entertainment, including for better or worse some of the spectacle variety, will continue to exist and be produced in vastly greater quantities and quality than it is feasible for anyone to even begin to fully appreciate in a lifetime. If the spectacle portion does not include projects with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, that is OK — we will love what culture does get produced, as that love and cultural relevance is largely based on being immersed in the culture that exists — we love the culture we’re in. If that culture is less dominated by U.S.-based high investment productions, so much the better for the U.S. and the world.

Another policy significant quote from the article:

Peter Eckersley, technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation […] said the law should shift its focus to making sure that copyright holders are paid for their work, rather than trying to stymie how people gain access to it. […] He suggested a legal framework to retire the “exclusive rights” aspect of copyright law that requires permission to publish — and that allows copyright holders to seek exorbitant damages from infringers — and move toward a system that requires sites and people who make money from another’s work to share any profits. Solutions like these, Mr. Eckersley says, would create different priorities that go beyond chasing small-time pirates like Ms. Beshara and her colleagues.

No, copyright holders should not be paid. Any payment by virtue of holding copyright only makes the censorship regime self-perpetuating. Funding of entertainment should be completely decoupled from the censorship regime of copyright. I understand the appeal of paid speech over permissioned speech (of course a tax is usually better than a prohibition, and that applies to privatized regimes as well), but neither is free speech. The paid speech approach would indeed create priorities that go beyond chasing small-time pirates (note Beshara earned $210k over 3 years; note also existing paid speech regimes which involve monitoring and shakedown of small-time restaurants) — it would invite further pervasive and destructive surveillance of communications in the interest of ensuring copyright holders get paid. It is appalling that EFF is still willing to invite sacrifice of everything they fight for at the alter of paying copyright holders. I don’t blame the EFF specifically; this just shows how deeply intellectual parasitism has burrowed in general. Intellectual parasites (which includes most reformers, including me often) need to fully shift to being commons policy advocates (and scholars).

Regarding people and projects like Hana Beshara and NinjaVideo, I’m ambivalent. Performing unpaid marketing and price discrimination services for the censorship industry is distasteful and harmful. But sharing culture (putting the regime aside) is tasteful and helpful. There is too little known about informal circulations and their effects, this lack of knowledge itself a collateral damage of the regime (compare being able to study cultural flows and surveillance required for paid speech; they are of different orders) and far, far, far too little direct competition for the regime.

Without Intellectual Property Day [edit]

Saturday, April 26th, 2014
Without Intellectual Property Day by Parker Higgins of the EFF is quite good, and released under CC-BY. Clearly deserving of adaptation. Mine below, followed by a diff.

April 26 is the day marked each year since 2000 by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as “World Intellectual Property Day”, in which WIPO tries to associate its worldwide pushes for more enclosure with creativity.

Celebrating creativity is a good thing, but when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For the World Intellectual Property Organization, it may seem like creativity and “intellectual property” are inextricably linked. That’s not the case. In the spirit of adding to the conversation, let’s honor all the creativity and industry that is happening without a dependence on a system intellectual property.

There’s an important reason to encourage and promote creativity outside the bounds of increasingly restrictive laws: to the extent such creativity succeeds, it helps us re-imagine the range of desirable policy and reduces the resources available to enclosure industries to lobby for protectionism — in sum shifting what is politically possible. It’s incumbent on all of us who want to encourage creativity to continue to explore and utilize structures that reward creators without also restricting speech.

Comedy, Fashion, Cooking, Magic, and More

In the areas in which intellectual freedom is not typically infringed, there is tremendous innovation and consistent creativity outside of the intellectual property system. Chefs create new dishes, designers imagine new styles, comedians write new jokes, all without a legal enforcement mechanism to restrict others from learning and building on them.

There may be informal systems that discourage copying—the comedy community, to take one example, will call out people who are deemed to be ripping off material—but for the most part these work without expensive litigation, threats of ruinous fines, and the creation of systems of surveillance and censorship.

Contributing to a Creative Commons

The free software movement pioneered the practice of creating digital media that can legally and freely be shared and expanded, building a commons. The digital commons idea is being pushed in more areas than ever before, including culture, education, government, hardware design, and research. There are some projects we’re all familiar with — Wikipedia is perhaps the most prominent, creating an expansive and continuously updated encyclopedia that is freely accessible under permissive terms to the entire world.

Focusing on this year’s World IP Day theme of movies, there have been some impressive contributions the commons over the years. Nina Paley’s feature animation Sita Sings The Blues, which she released into the public domain, has spread widely, inspired more work, and earned her money. The short films from the Blender Foundation have demonstrated cutting-edge computer graphics made with free software and, though they’ve sometimes been on the receiving end of bogus copyright takedowns, have been watched many millions of times.

Kickstarting and Threshold Pledges

Finally, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indie-Go-Go have made a major splash in the last few years as another fundraising model that can complement, or even replace, copyright exclusivity. These platforms build on theoretical framework laid out by scholars like John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier in the influential “Street Performer Protocol” paper, which set out to devise an alternative funding system for public domain works. But most crowdfunded works are not in the commons, indicating an need for better coordination of street patrons.

Looking at movies in particular: Kickstarter alone has enabled hundreds of millions of dollars of pledges, hundreds of theatrical releases, and seven Oscar-nominated films (including Inocente, winner of the Best Documentary Short category). Blender Foundation is currently crowdfunding its first feature length film, Gooseberry.


The conceit of copyright and other “intellectual property” systems is that they can be calibrated to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. But the reality of these systems is corruption and rent seeking, not calibration. The cost is not just less creativity and innovation, but less freedom and equality.

It’s clear from real world examples that other systems can achieve the goal of promoting creativity, progress, and innovation. We must continue to push for both practice and policy that favors these systems, ultimately rendering “intellectual property” a baffling anachronism. In a good future, a policy-oriented celebration of creativity and innovaion would be called World Intellectual Freedom Day.

wdiff -n eff-wipd.html eff-wipd-edit.html |colordiff |aha -w > eff-wipd-diff.html
[-<p>Today, April 26,-]{+<p>April 26+} is the day marked each year since 2000 [-as "Intellectual Property Day"-] by the <a href="">World Intellectual Property Organization [-(WIPO)</a>. There are many areas where EFF has not historically agreed with WIPO,-] {+(WIPO)</a> as "World Intellectual Property Day", in+} which [-has traditionally pushed-] {+WIPO tries to associate its <a href="">worldwide pushes+} for more [-restrictive agreements and served as a venue for <a href="">domestic policy laundering</a>, but we agree that celebrating-] {+enclosure</a> with creativity.</p>+}
{+<p>Celebrating+} creativity is a good [-thing.</p>-]
[-<p>As the saying goes, though:-] {+thing, but+} when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For the World Intellectual Property Organization, it may seem like creativity and <a href="">"intellectual property"</a> are inextricably linked. That's not the case. In the spirit of adding to the conversation, [-we'd like to-] {+let's+} honor all the creativity and industry that is happening <i>without</i> a dependence on a system intellectual property.</p>
<p>There's an important reason to encourage {+and promote+} creativity outside the bounds of increasingly restrictive [-laws, too. As Ninth Circuit Chief Justice Alex Kozinski eloquently explained in <a href="">a powerful dissent</a> some 20 years ago, pushing only for more IP restrictions tips a delicate balance against creativity:</p>-]
[-<blockquote><p>Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Creativity is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on-] {+laws: to+} the [-works-] {+extent such creativity succeeds, it helps us re-imagine the range+} of [-those who came before. Overprotection stifles the very creative forces it's supposed-] {+desirable policy <i>and</i> reduces the resources available+} to [-nurture.</p></blockquote>-]
[-<p>It's-] {+enclosure industries to lobby for protectionism -- in sum shifting what is politically possible. It's+} incumbent on all of us who want to encourage creativity to continue to explore {+and utilize+} structures that reward creators without also restricting speech.</p>
<h3>Comedy, Fashion, Cooking, Magic, and More</h3>
<p>In the areas [-known as copyright's "negative spaces,"-] {+in which intellectual freedom is not typically infringed,+} there is tremendous innovation and consistent creativity outside of the intellectual property system. Chefs create new dishes, designers imagine new styles, comedians write new jokes, all without a legal enforcement mechanism to restrict others from learning and building on them.</p>
<p>There may be informal systems that discourage copying—the comedy community, to take one example, <a href="">will call out people</a> who are deemed to be ripping off material—but for the most part these work without expensive litigation, threats of ruinous fines, and the creation of systems [-that can be abused to silence lawful non-infringing speech.</p>-] {+of surveillance and censorship.</p>+}
<h3>Contributing to a Creative Commons</h3>
<p>The free software movement [-may have popularized-] {+pioneered+} the [-idea-] {+practice+} of creating digital media that can legally and freely be shared and expanded, [-but the free culture movement has pushed the-] {+building a commons. The digital commons+} idea [-further-] {+is being pushed in more areas+} than ever [-before.-] {+before, including culture, education, government, hardware design, and research.+} There are some projects we're all familiar [-with—Wikipedia-] {+with -- Wikipedia+} is perhaps the most prominent, creating an expansive and continuously updated encyclopedia that is freely accessible under permissive terms to the entire world.</p>
<p>Focusing on this year's World IP Day theme of movies, there have been some impressive contributions the commons over the years. Nina Paley's feature animation <i><a href="">Sita Sings The Blues</a></i>, which she released into the public domain, has spread widely, inspired more work, and earned her money. The <a href="">short films from the Blender Foundation</a> have demonstrated cutting-edge computer graphics made with free software and, though they've sometimes been on <a href="">the receiving end of bogus copyright takedowns</a>, have been watched many millions of times.</p>
<h3>Kickstarting and Threshold Pledges</h3>
<p>Finally, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indie-Go-Go have made a major splash in the last few years as another fundraising model that can complement, or even replace, [-traditional-] copyright exclusivity. These platforms build on theoretical framework laid out by scholars like John Kelsey and [-EFF board member-] Bruce Schneier in <a href="">the influential "Street Performer Protocol" paper</a>, which set out to devise an alternative funding system for public [-works.</p>-] {+domain works. But most crowdfunded works are not in the commons, indicating an need for better <a href="">coordination of street patrons</a>.</p>+}
<p>Looking at movies in particular: Kickstarter alone has <a href="">enabled hundreds of millions of dollars of pledges</a>, hundreds of theatrical releases, and seven Oscar-nominated films (including <i>Inocente</i>, winner of the Best Documentary Short category). [-Along with other-] {+Blender Foundation is currently+} crowdfunding [-sites, it has allowed the development of niche projects that might never have been possible under the traditional copyright system.&nbsp;</p>-] {+its first feature length film, <em><a href="">Gooseberry</a></em>.</p>+}
[-<p>As the Constitution tells us,-]
{+<p>The conceit of+} copyright and other "intellectual property" systems [-can, when-] {+is that they can be+} calibrated [-correctly,-] {+to+} promote the progress of science and the useful arts. [-We continue to work pushing for a balanced law that would better achieve that end.</p>-]
[-<p>But it's also-] {+But the reality of these systems is corruption and rent seeking, not calibration. The cost is not just less creativity and innovation, but less freedom and <a href="">equality</a>.</p>+}
{+<p>It's+} clear from [-these-] real world examples that other systems can achieve [-that-] {+the+} goal [-as well. Promoting-] {+of promoting+} creativity, progress, and [-innovation is an incredibly valuable mission—it's good to know that it doesn't have-] {+innovation. We must continue+} to [-come through systems-] {+push for both practice and <a href="">policy+} that [-can-] {+favors these systems</a>, ultimately rendering "intellectual property" a baffling anachronism. In a good future, a policy-oriented celebration of creativity and innovaion would+} be [-abused to stifle valuable speech.</p>-] {+called World Intellectual Freedom Day.</p>+}

Empowered Mozilla?

Friday, April 4th, 2014

I don’t feel glad about Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla, but it is probably for the best that it happened quickly. Even the President of the United States has changed his tune on same sex marriage since 2008. Apparently Eich really wanted to not even pretend to change his opinion and make up for it.

There is irony and danger in excluding holders of non-inclusive political opinions in the name of inclusivity. But the particulars of this instance make sense. (1) The excluded opinion isn’t just any. It’s in a class of opinions which deny equal rights to some people based on attributes they did not choose. Once society gets around to expanding the circle of moral equality to another group, advocacy against the expansion or for retraction quickly becomes an abomination suppressed on the free market; and not soon enough. I don’t see any way to avoid this. I suspect that the general case for socially (as opposed to legally: there should be no legal intolerance for even abominable opinions) tolerating diverse opinions is harmed if anti-equality opinions are treated as any other political opinion. (2) The opinion holder isn’t just anyone, but the symbol of a very public organization. Whether the chief executive should be such a central figure — certainly not when it comes to criminally powerful heads of nearly all states — is another question. I look forward to publicly holding the opinion that jurisdiction of birth serves as a legitimate reason for denial of equal rights becoming verboten for leaders, and in any educated company, at which point international apartheid must quickly crumble.

I hope that this brief crisis somehow spurs Mozilla to get back to its roots, even if in other respects Eich would have been the best leader to do that. For anyone who cares about the Mozilla mission, the crisis reveals a lot more about governance and communications problems at the organization than about Eich’s views, which were already known last year. I don’t think the crisis was only due to the outrage of marriage equality advocates. People expect better from Mozilla than the corporate/political PR style which Mozilla seems to have adopted: non-specific hype and if that doesn’t go over well reassure without directly addressing concerns. That approach could hardly be more calculated to provoke outrage among people who feel a part of the Mozilla community.

About crowd outrage, including destructive measures (promotion of browsers that are ethically far worse than Firefox), and Mozilla’s initial response of reassuring without directly addressing concerns (which horribly undersold Mozilla’s excellent practices and values, seeming to be offered as pathetic reassurance rather than the bedrock that they are): the whole thing reminds me of mass protest stemming from some legitimate issues, government refusal to directly address issues, and a rapid escalation to regime change as a non-negotiable demand, with destruction and opportunity creation for trolls quickly following.

Though in every recent case I can think of, the outraged crowd has good reason to be outraged, there is something “illegitimate” about obtaining change through packing the streets (or net), and certainly much dangerous about it: the collateral damage and opportunities created for the worst actors are enormous. Is there any hope for crowds or institutions to become “smarter” and more constructive? That’s in part what I was hoping for in the Mozilla case in my previous post.

I can think of approximately three possibilities; hopefully many more exist. (1) Better predictions about outcomes, i.e., any at all beyond self-serving punditry. Prediction markets are one possible, but so far failed (in the sense of near zero use), mechanism. Some outraged crowd members might pay attention to risk, and perhaps even tip the crowd into more rational behavior. Within regimes (inclusive of those controlling non-state organizations) better predictions might strengthen the hands of those who advocate for responding in a way not seemingly calculated to tip the crowd into regime change as a non-negotiable demand. (2) New “legitimate” arrangements which somehow promote directly addressing concerns rapidly, without allowing any mass of angry people to demand regime change. I don’t have any concrete ideas, but might be related to (3) new “legitimate” arrangements designed to encourage change without crisis, thus reducing the “need” for crisis. In many ways (2) and (3) are the function of “the market” and “culture” with emphasis depending on topic. But organizations (state, firm, or other) play a tremendous role, so institutional design is highly pertinent. One version of such institutional design, or at least call for such, is Roberto Unger’s concept of empowered democracy (from Wikipedia, emphasis added):

Unger’s proposal for political democracy calls for a high energy system that diminishes the dependence of change upon crisis. This can be done, he claims, by breaking the constant threat of stasis and institutionalization of politics and parties through five institutional innovations. First, increase collective engagement through the public financing of campaigns and giving free access to media outlets. Second, hasten the pace of politics by breaking legislative deadlock through the enabling of the party in power to push through proposals and reforms, and for opposition parties to be able to dissolve the government and call for immediate elections. Third, the option of any segment of society to opt out of the political process and to propose alternative solutions for its own governance. Fourth, give the state the power to rescue oppressed groups that are unable to liberate themselves through collective action. Fifth, direct participatory democracy in which active engagement is not purely in terms of financial support and wealth distribution, but through which people are directly involved in their local and national affairs through proposal and action.

I don’t have any comments on Unger’s proposed innovations (apart from skeptical curiosity), but the goal increasing (implied positive) change while reducing crisis seems one worthy of exploration, by organizations of all sizes.

Brendan Eich’s going away post:

Networks breed first- and second-mover winners and others path-dependent powers, until the next disruption. Users or rather their data get captured.

Privacy is only one concern among several, including how to realize economic value for many-yet-individually-weak users, not just for data-store/service owners or third parties. Can we do better with client-side and private-cloud tiers, zero-knowledge proofs and protocols, or other ideas?

Can a browser/OS “unionize its users” to gain bargaining power vs. net super-powers?

This is basically why I think Mozilla is so great and important. Lots of free/libre/open projects and organizations have good values. They largely don’t matter because network effects dominate. Huge organizations with good values are necessary, and all the better if they explicitly are thinking about the challenges imposed by the network effects of incumbents which embody poor values.

There’s no analogy worthy of making, and cringe when others try. But I’m glad that marriage equality advocates and their predecessors in struggles for civil rights succeeded in gaining bargaining power vs. the social super-powers of the day.

IP, commons, and World Values Survey traditional/secular-rational and survival/self-expression dimensions

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

I recently wrote about Benkler’s 2002 claim that “commons-based peer production” or the “networked information economy” could enhance the liberal values of democracy, equality, freedom, and innovation and the corollary that “intellectual property” is a barrier to peer production, thus to realizing these gains. More riffing on Benkler’s papers forthcoming, but that post also serves to kick off a series I’ve long meant to do — looking at IP (take your pick: intellectual property, intellectual/industrial protectionism, inequality promotion, information/innovation policy) and commons from the perspective of various general characterizations of, take your pick: ethics, morality, politics, values. These posts will be rather naive, reflecting in some proportions the generally ignorant nature of what passes as discourse on IP and my ignorance of wide swaths of discourse. I appreciate efforts from others to correct both.

You’ve probably seen a plot of cultures on the dimensions of traditional/secular-rational values and survival/self-expression values, from World Values Survey data, but here it is again:
plot of cultures on the dimensions of traditional/secular-rational values and survival/self-expression values

Definitions, excerpted from Wikipedia:

Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.

Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable.

Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.

Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.

How do the current IP regime and treating knowledge as a commons align on these dimensions?

Property seems aligned with traditional and survival values:

  • Deference to authority: literally, deference to those legally recognized as authors, practically, deference to highly capitalized intermediary “owners” who define culture through mass marketing.
  • Traditional family values: highly capitalized intermediaries are often willing accomplices in promoting, and suppressing other values.
  • Nationalistic: those foreign pirates!
  • Economic security: tropes of caring about starving artists and their descendants, and the centrality of the assumption that knowledge would not be created without property and of showing off how much “economic activity” industry generates.
  • Low levels of trust and tolerance: previous assumption, and want to control unauthorized adaptations and uses.

Commons seems aligned with secular-rational and self-expression values:

  • Less emphasis on authorial and intermediary control, largely debunking and struggling against these.
  • Non-traditional, unintended, global uses welcomed as beneficial: sources of decentralized innovation.
  • Outré uses seen as relatively acceptable, not to be suppressed by dominant intermediaries or legal persecution.
  • Cultural environmentalism, knowledge ecology threatened by enclosure rather than inadequate incentive.
  • Tropes of participatory culture, democratized innovation, commons-based peer production as a means of enhancing liberal values of democratic discourse, individual autonomy, equality.

I didn’t include religion above because it plays little role in contemporary IP discourse, but historically I’d place it solidly with Property, thus furthering its alignment with traditional values — religion has been a and often the primary enforcer of control and exclusivity over knowledge from the dawn of civilization.

Clearly above is a motivated characterization. Please attack it. Three obvious starting points:

  • Commons advocates look back fondly on gift exchange in traditional cultures. I don’t think this will be a fruitful attack, as gift economy does not align with traditional or survival values as used in the World Values Survey. But you could construct a tenuous multi-step argument.
  • Jurisdictions with stronger enforcement of intellectual property tend to have populations with secular-rational and self-expression values, relative to those with weaker enforcement.
  • Property, through its support for centralized control and highly capitalized intermediaries, is exactly what destroys traditional and survival values, even if relying on same for legitimacy, and needing to strike occasional bargains with traditional values advocates.

Perhaps these amount to claim that commons expressively aligns with secular-rational and self-expression values, but property instrumentally aligns with same. This largely brings us back to theory and facts: does property or commons maximize innovation? But, what about freedom and equality as desiderata of innovation policy? I conclude for now that the current IP regime aligns with traditional and survival values and knowledge commons with secular-rational and self-expression values.