Post Intellectual Protectionism

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.

Keep Fighting Forward

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Today is the day to mass call for regulation of mass surveillance. I did, please do it too.

I’m still underwhelmed by the rearguard nature of such actions, wonder how long they continue to be effective (e.g., when co-opted, or when policymakers realize mass calls don’t translate into votes, or forever…since at least 1996), and am even enraged by their focus on symptoms. But my feelings are probably wrong. Part of me applauds those who enjoy fighting the shortest term and broadest appeal possible battles. Such probably helps prevent things from getting worse, at least for a time, and that’s really valuable. Anyone who believes things must get worse before they get better is dangerous, because that’s when real trolls take over, damn your revolution.

I enjoyed Don Marti’s imperfect but perfectly provocative analogy, which I guess implies (he doesn’t say) the correct response to mass surveillance is to spend on end-to-end crypto, rejection of private tracking, decentralization, and other countermeasures, sealing net communications from security state poison. I’m all for that, and wish advocacy for same were a big part of mass calls to action like today’s. But I see the two as mostly complementary, as much as I’d like to scream “you’re doing it entirely wrong!”

Also QuestionCopyright’s assertion that Copyright + Internet = Surveillance. Or another version: Internet, Privacy, Copyright; Choose Two. I could quibble that these are too weak (freedom was infringed by copyright before the net) and too strong (not binary), but helpfully provocative.

Addendum: Also, Renata Avila:

For me is . Otherwise, we will be in serious trouble. Donate to resistance tools like or

Sleepwalking past Freedom’s Commons, or how peer production could increase democracy, equality, freedom, and innovation, all of them!

Sunday, February 9th, 2014


The most interesting parts of ‘s The Wealth of Networks concern how peer production facilitates liberal values. I’ll blog a review in the fullness of time.

In lieu of that which may never come, some motivated notes on Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm (2002, 78 pages) and Freedom in the Commons: Towards a Political Economy of Information (2003, 32 pages; based on a 2002 lecture). A friend wanted to trial a book group with the former. Re-reading that led me to the latter, which I hadn’t read before. Reading them together, or even just the latter, might be a good alternative to reading The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006, 473 pages).

As might be expected from decade plus old internet research, some of the examples in the papers and book are a bit stale, but sadly their fundamental challenge remains largely unacknowledged, and only taken as a byproduct. I would love to be convinced otherwise. Is the challenge (or my extrapolation) wrong, unimportant, or being met satisfactorily?

Excerpts from Freedom in the Commons (emphasis added by me in all quotes that follow):

[Commons-based peer production] opens a range of new opportunities for pursuing core political values of liberal societies—democracy, individual freedom, and social justice. These values provide three vectors of political morality along which the shape and dimensions of any liberal society can be plotted. Because, however, they are often contradictory rather than complementary, the pursuit of each of these values places certain limits on how we conceive of and pursue the others, leading different liberal societies to respect them in different patterns.

An underlying efficient limit on how we can pursue any mix of arrangements to implement our commitments to democracy, autonomy, and equality, however, has been the pursuit of productivity and growth.

[Commons-based peer production] can move the boundaries of liberty along all three vectors of liberal political morality.

There is no benevolent historical force, however, that will inexorably lead the technological-economic moment to develop towards an open, diverse, liberal equilibrium. If the transformation occurs, it will lead to substantial redistribution of power and money from the twentieth-century, industrial producers of information, culture, and communications—like Hollywood, the recording industry, and the telecommunications giants—to a widely diffuse population around the globe. None of the industrial giants of yore are going to take this redistribution lying down. Technology will not overcome their resistance through some insurmountable progressive impulse. The reorganization of production, and the advances it can bring in democracy, autonomy, and social justice will emerge, if it emerges, only as a result of social and political action. To make it possible, it is crucial that we develop an understanding of what is at stake and what are the possible avenues for social and political action. But I have no illusions, and offer no reassurances, that any of this will in fact come to pass. I can only say that without an effort to focus our attention on what matters, the smoke and mirrors of flashy toys and more convenient shopping will be as enlightening as Aldous Huxley’s soma and feelies, and as socially constructive as his orgy porgy.

Let us think, then, of our being thrust into this moment as a challenge. We are in the midst of a technological, economic, and organizational transformation that allows us to renegotiate the terms of freedom, justice, and productivity in the information society. How we shall live in this new environment will largely depend on policy choices that we will make over the next decade or two. To be able to understand these choices, to be able to make them well, we must understand that they are part of a social and political choice—a choice about how to be free, equal, and productive human beings under anew set of technological and economic conditions. As economic policy, letting yesterday’s winners dictate the terms of economic competition tomorrow is disastrous. As social policy, missing an opportunity to enrich democracy, freedom, and equality in our society, while maintaining or even enhancing our productivity, is unforgivable.

Although the claim that the Internet leads to some form or another of “decentralization” is not new, the fundamental role played in this transformation by the emergence of non-market, nonproprietary production and distribution is often over-looked, if not willfully ignored.

First, if the networked information economy is permitted to emerge from the institutional battle, it will enable an outward shift of the limits that productivity places on the political imagination. Second, a society committed to any positive combination of the three values needs to adopt robust policies to facilitate these modes of production,because facilitating these modes of production does not represent a choice between productivity and liberal values, but rather an opportunity actually to relax the efficient limit on the plausible set of political arrangements available given the constraints of productivity.

We are at a moment in our history at which the terms of freedom and justice are up for grabs. We have an opportunity to improve the way we govern ourselves—both as members of communities and as autonomous individuals. We have an opportunity to be more just at the very core of our economic system. The practical steps we must take to reshape the boundaries of the possible in political morality and to improve the pattern of liberal society will likely improve productivity and growth through greater innovation and creativity. Instead of seizing these opportunities, however, we are sleepwalking.

What arrangements favor reorganization towards commons-based peer production? From Coase’s Penguin:

This suggests that peer production will thrive where projects have three characteristics. First, they must be modular. That is, they must be divisible into components, or modules, each of which can be produced of the production of the others. This enables production to be incremental and asynchronous, pooling the efforts of different people, with different capabilities, who are available at different times. Second, the granularity of the modules is important and refers to the sizes of the project’s modules. For a peer production process to pool successfully a relatively large number of contributors, the modules should be predominately fine-grained, or small in size. This allows the project to capture contributions from large numbers of contributors whose motivation levels will not sustain anything more than small efforts toward the project. Novels, for example, at least those that look like our current conception of a novel, are likely to prove resistant to peer production. In addition, a project will likely be more efficient if it can accommodate variously sized contributions. Heterogeneous granularity will allow people with different levels of motivation to collaborate by making smaller- or larger-grained contributions, consistent with their levels of motivation. Third, and finally, a successful peer production enterprise must have low-cost integration, which includes both quality control over the modules and a mechanism for integrating the contributions into the finished product.

Regulators concerned with fostering innovation may better direct their efforts toward providing the institutional tools that would help thousands of people to collaborate without appropriating their joint product, making the information they produce freely available rather than spending their efforts to increase the scope and sophistication of the mechanisms for private appropriation of this public good as they now do.

That we cannot fully understand a phenomenon does not mean that it does not exist. That a seemingly growing phenomenon refuses to fit our longstanding perceptions of how people behave and how economic growth occurs counsels closer attention, not studied indifference and ignorance.  Commons-based peer production presents a fascinating phenomenon that could allow us to tap substantially underutilized reserves of human creative effort. It is of central importance that we not squelch peer production, but that we create the institutional conditions needed for it to flourish.

There’s been some progress on institutional tools (i.e., policy arrangements writ large, the result of “political action” above) in the 11 or so years since (e.g., Open Access mandates), but not nearly enough to outweigh global ratcheting of intellectual freedom infringing regimes, despite the occasional success of rearguard actions against such ratcheting. Neither these rearguard actions, nor mainstream (nor reformist) discussion of “reform” put commons at the center of their concerns. The best we can expect from this sleepwalking is to muddle through, with policy protecting and promoting commons where such is coincidentally aligned with some industrial interest (often simplified to “Google” in the past several years, but that won’t last forever).

My extrapolation (again, tell me if facile or wrong): shifting production arrangements so as to favor commons-based peer production is as important as, complementary to, and almost necessary for positive policy change. Commons-based product competition simultaneously changes the facts on the ground, the range of policies imaginable, and potentially create a commons “industrial” interest group which is recognizably important to regulators and makes commons-based peer production favoring policy central to its demands — the likely Wikimedia response to the European Commission copyright consultation is a hopeful example.

There has been lots of progress on improving commons-based peer production (e.g., some trends), but also not nearly enough to keep up with proprietary innovation, particularly lacking and missing huge opportunities where proprietary incumbents real advantages sit — not production per se, but funding and distribution/marketing/cultural relevance making. Improving commons-based peer production, shifting the commanding heights (i.e., Hollywood premium video and massively expensive and captured pharma regulatory apparatus) to forms more amenable to commons-based peer production, and expanding the scope of commons-based peer production to include funding and relevance making are among the most potent political projects of our time.

Wake up. ^_^

Technology and wealth Inequality Promotion

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Sam Altman, Technology and wealth inequality:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public domain wins copyright week!

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annual thematic doubt

Friday, January 10th, 2014

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

Intellectual Freedom

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

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

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

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

Critical Cheering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Apartheid

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

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

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

My fascinating post (thanks).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy GNU Year & Public Domain Day

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

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

My previous Public Domain Day posts:

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

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

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

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

Bonus links:

Greatest month in history?

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Yesterday, 11 years ago, today, 22 years and 4 months. Recently I noticed an observation in slides by Glyn Moody on Open Acccess (related editorial):

25 August 1991 – Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, announced the start of Linux
23 August 1991 – World Wide Web released publicly
14 August 1991 – Launch of arXiv

Moody titled the slide with above items “greatest week in history?” — arXiv is listed as 19 August, which I think must be a transcription error. Still, perhaps the greatest month in some assessment which grants something like knowledge commons supreme importance; perhaps future conventional wisdom. Those three are a nice mix of software, protocols, literature, data, and infrastructure.

collapsed broadcast towerThe world’s tallest broadcast tower collapsed 8 August 1991 to make way for somewhat less centralized communications.

Linux and the Web make Wikipedia’s short list of August 1991 events, which is dominated by the beginning of the final phase of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (I have an old post which is a tiny bit relevant to tying this all together, however unwarranted that may be.)

arXiv isn’t nearly as well known to the general public as Linux, which isn’t nearly as well known as the Web. In some ways arXiv is still ahead of its time. The future takes a long time to be distributed — Moody’s cover slide is titled “half a revolution”. Below I’ve excepted a few particularly enjoyable paragraphs and footnotes from It was twenty years ago today… by arXiv founder Paul Ginsparg (who, Moody notes, knew of GNU via a brother). I’ve bolded a couple phrases and added one link for additional entertainment value. The whole 9 page paper (PDF) is worth a quick read (I can’t help but notice and enjoy the complete absence of two words: “copyright” and “license”).

The exchange of completed manuscripts to personal contacts directly by email became more widespread, and ultimately led to distribution via larger email lists.13 The latter had the potential to correct a significant problem of unequal access in the existing paper-preprint distribution system. For purely practical reasons, authors at the time used to mail photocopies of their newly minted articles to only a small number of people. Those lower in the food chain relied on the beneficence of those on the A-list, and aspiring researchers at non-elite institutions were frequently out of the privileged loop entirely. This was a problematic situation, because, in principle, researchers prefer that their progress depends on working harder or on having some key insight, rather than on privileged access to essential materials.

By the spring of 1991, I had moved to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and for the first time had my own computer on my desk, a 25 MHz NeXTstation with a 105 Mb hard drive and 16 Mb of RAM. I was thus fully cognizant of the available disk and CPU resources, both substantially larger than on a shared mainframe, where users were typically allocated as little as the equivalent of 0.5 Mb for personal use. At the Aspen Center for Physics, in Colorado, in late June 1991, a stray comment from a physicist, concerned about emailed articles overrunning his disk allocation while traveling, suggested to me the creation of a centralized automated repository and alerting system, which would send full texts only on demand. That solution would also democratize the exchange of information, leveling the aforementioned research playing field, both internally within institutions and globally for all with network access.

Thus was born,18 initially an automated email server (and within a few months also an FTP server), powered by a set of csh scripts.19 It was originally intended for about 100 submissions per year from a small subfield of high-energy particle physics, but rapidly grew in users and scope, receiving 400 submissions in its first half year. The submissions were initially planned to be deleted after three months, by which time the pre-existing paper distribution system would catch up, but by popular demand nothing was ever deleted. (Renamed in late 1998 to, it has accumulated roughly 700,000 total submissions [mid Aug 2011], currently receives 75,000 new submissions per year, and serves roughly one million full text downloads to about 400,000 distinct users per week. The system quickly attracted the attention of existing physics publishers, and in rapid succession I received congenial visits from the editorial directors of both the American Physical Society (APS) and Institute of Physics Publishing (IOPP) to my little 10’x10’ office. It also had an immediate impact on physicists in less developed countries, who reported feeling finally in the loop, both for timely receipt of research ideas and for equitable reading of their own contributions. (Twenty years later, I still receive messages reporting that the system provides to them more assistance than any international organization.)

In the fall of 1992, a colleague at CERN emailed me: ‘Q: do you know the worldwide-web program?’ I did not, but quickly installed, serendipitously written by Tim Berners-Lee for the same NeXT computer that I was using, and with whom I began to exchange emails. Later that fall, I used it to help beta-test the first US Web server, set up by the library at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center for use by the high-energy physics community.

Not everyone appreciated just how rapidly things were progressing. In early 1994, I happened to serve on a committee advising the APS about putting Physical Review Letters online. I suggested that a Web interface along the lines of the prototype might be a good way for the APS to disseminate its documents. A response came back from another committee member: “Installing and learning to use a WorldWideWeb browser is a complicated and difficult task — we can’t possibly expect this of the average physicist.”

13The most significant of these was maintained by Joanne Cohn, then a postdoctoral associate at the IAS Princeton, who manually collected and redistributed preprints (originally in the subject area of matrix models of two dimensional surfaces) to what became a list of over a hundred interested researchers, largely younger postdocs and grad students. This manual methodology provided an important proof of concept for the broader automated and archival system that succeeded it, and her distribution list was among those used to seed the initial userbase.

18The name xxx was derived from the heuristic I’d used in marking text in TeX files for later correction (i.e., awaiting a final search for all appearances of the string ‘xxx’, which wouldn’t otherwise appear, and for which I later learned the string ‘tk’ is employed by journalists, for similar reasons).

19The csh scripts were translated to Perl starting in 1994, when NSF funding permitted actual employees.

(the rest)

CC11x11, before, 0, &freebassel

Monday, December 16th, 2013
Gimped CC cake 10 / BY / Kristina Alexanderson
(I wrote 90% of this post a year ago; currently unaware of any actual CC 11 cakes or celebrations.)

Today is the 11th anniversary of the launch of the first version of the first 11 Creative Commons licenses. Depending how one counts, there are now as few as 0, though 6 is probably the conventional answer (only current international versions of ones that were among the original 11), or as many as 608 (all versions, jurisdiction ports, retired licenses, and public domain instruments).

If 2002-12-16 is a significant marker, I’d like to take a look at what preceded it, very nearby — other public copyright licenses, public domain dedications, and ad hoc sharing statements. Eventually I hope to take a more in-depth look at all of these, and moreso I hope others do research around them.

Prior to the 1980s, such statements are very scattered. Has anyone pieced together commonalities and differences of pro-info-sharing statements through history? Examples…

In 868 the Diamond Sutra included:

Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong.

1869 Recent Discussions on the Abolition of Patents for Inventions, setting a standard that modern books on advocating reform (inclusive of abolition) fail to meet:

No rights are reserved

1910 the English translation of Gandhi’s Indian Home Rule was printed with the words No Rights Reserved on the title page.

1967 the copyright notice of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace included:

Permission is granted to reprint any of these poems in magazines, books and newspapers if they are given away free.

1976 Tiny BASIC for Intel 8080 included:


1978 In the Making included:

“Alternative publications may reproduce freely provided acknowledgement is made.”

I believe many statements along such lines were published, especially in the last century, but again, as far as I know, nobody has ever thoroughly investigated. I’m very interested, in part because I have a hunch what might be characterized as “information commons” have been malgoverned for the entirety of human history. Why did pro-sharing statements, in the form of public copyright licenses, only become regularized, widespread, and thought by some as creating and protecting commons, in the 1980s, starting with software?

The easy answer is that software had just become clearly restricted by copyright, and programmers have a more immediately compelling need to collaborate across organizational boundaries in a way that implicates copyright restrictions than do others. Still, one may question just how different paths would need to have been for explicit pro-sharing practices to have developed in other domains first, even pre-computer, and how the norms of such practices might have differed. I’ve speculated, very briefly that it’s plausible order could’ve been different, and essentially software freedom norms are a “sweet spot” that would’ve been arrived at anyway. Much more could be said about that, and also about whether and how the explicit pro-sharing practices I’ve recognized as such in this post have crowded out or complemented other pro-sharing practices.

In any case, in the 5 years prior to the launch of the first 11 Creative Commons licenses, there was a proliferation of interest in public copyright licenses for various forms of non-software works (including hardware designs, which took longer to capture much interest, and I won’t cover here). An incomplete list of such licenses released 1998-2002:

Anti-Copyright License, Comic Book Public License, Design Science License, Distributed Encyclopedia General Public License, EFF Open Audio License, Electrohippie Collective’s Ethical Open Documentation License, Ethymonics Free Music License, Free Art License, Free Media License, Free Music Public License, GNU Free Documentation License, No Type License, OpenBits License, Open Content License, Open Directory License, the Open Music licenses, Open Publication License, Open Source Music License, Public Library of Science Open Access License, QING Public Licnese, and Phy-d’eau — License of Intention for Liberty in Expression and Creativity.

Many of these licenses are non-free/open, and nearly all are incompatible with all the rest. These problems preceded Creative Commons. Whether in the past 10 years Creative Commons has on net made these problems better or worse (or merely not better fast enough) is hard to say. One curiosity about these pre-CC licenses is that the only ones remaining in any kind of significant use (Free Art License and Free Documentation License) are free/open, copyleft licenses.

Near certainty of large adoption of public licenses and public domain dedications outside software also preceded CC. The effect one can be most certain of attributing to CC is of killing adoption of the few of these licenses that had any plausibility, and of the development of further non-CC licenses, for awhile. Whether a dominant central license steward was net positive, is hard to say. It’s easy to see some marketing benefits, and some innovation costs, and vice versa.

Some public licenses created for software, mostly the GNU GPL, and BSD licenses, were used for some non-software works before the explosion of non-software public licenses (of which CC was part). An open question is whether this explosion was a good thing at all, or rather a failure on the part of free software license pioneers to occupy a broader space, and create a broader-based, less fragmented movement for intellectual freedom…the part facilitated by public licenses that is.

It’s also possible that free software started with the wrong arrangement in the form of public licenses, and others, including what became CC, ought have tried something different, for example clubs/pools, or skipping voluntary methods altogether. (Many people have focused on one or more of direct action, litigation, and public policy. I tend to think there’s far too little appreciation and collaboration across these methods and voluntary construction, resulting in a further fragmented, scared, and weak movement.)

I didn’t publish a year ago because I’d intended to add sections on the “CC era” of the past 10, now 11 years, and the future. My recent extended quasi-review of CC 4.0 licenses will have to suffice. Now…

Celebrate CC’s 11th birthday:

Upgrade to CC0

Free Bassel