Post Intellectual Protectionism

Shaver: Copyright and Inequality

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

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

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

Inequality Promotion

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

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

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

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

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

Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spectacle

Further excerpts from Copyright and Inequality:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing quote from Copyright and Inequality:

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

Read the entire paper, and share!

The framing is wrong, harmful, and anti-democratic

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Luis Villa’s points are so well put that I just had to copy and blog immediately. The specific context is not needed for the points are apropos to nearly all contemporary info policy discourse — recall the 2003 Benkler excerpt I emphasized a few posts ago:

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.

Villa:

  1. The framing is wrong – it should be “production models”, or “sustainability models”, not “business models” – the assumption that production of copyrighted works has to happen through “business” is a harmful and anti-democratic in an age where every citizen has access to tools that can publish to the entire world.
  2. Ditto use of “the industry”, as if “the industry” is the only meaningful producer of content. (Really, these two points alone could make for a great blog post; this paper is far from the only one that makes these two mistakes but is particularly blatant in use of the framing.)
  3. In part as a result of this framing, it is sad but not surprising that no citizen/public interest groups were consulted in the creation of the material. Not sure we’d want to say that to them publicly, but if we decide not to offer informal comment I’d want to say that publicly in a blog post when this is published.
  4. If the purpose of the observatory is to study infringement, then clearly peer production should be listed as a “business model” and the infringement of peer-produced material should be treated on a par with material produced through the other production models. I’m sure this group can come up with examples of infringement of our material and of other peer-produced content.
  5. Music: no mention of tools like Soundcloud (.de-based!) that are intended to democratize music creation and publication.
  6. Video: no mention of how Youtube/Vimeo has created a vast amount of non-industry video content creation, or of regular traditional media industry infringement of citizen-created video without penalty or concern. (If we wanted to write this up formally for them, we’d want to find some examples of this.)
  7. Sports: I can’t speak to the EU, but in the US, fan-created commentary (such as sbnation.com) is now a huge source of reporting on sports news, often delivering better quality than the traditional news sources. Probably not directly relevant to this section, though (unless there have been legal threats in the EU around fan-provided live-streaming commentary).
  8. Press content: at least in the US, donor-supported/non-profit media is an increasingly important source of news; lots of detail here: http://www.journalism.org/2013/06/10/nonprofit-journalism/ Don’t know if there are EU-based examples of this.
  9. Social media: with regards to 4.7 (news/social media), it should be noted that social media probably disproportionately *helps* peer-produced media, since that historically has very few resources to use for marketing/distribution, and so must rely on word-of-mouth.
  10. Sec. 4 and 5 consider “news” and “books”; amazingly, neither consider new text-centric methods of production of copyrighted works, like wikis or blogs. Again shows how blind this is to the actual innovation happening in the content space.
  11. Books: no mention that technical protection measures have encouraged monopolization of the distribution channels, to the detriment of traditional distribution channels and to blossoming antitrust problems in the US (and presumably soon in the EU).
  12. 6.2: a mention of communities! But on cue, statement that these authors may not be being remunerated, as if remuneration was the only potential goal for creators. Youtube gets mentioned here, but not in Sec. 1 (Music) or Sec. 2 (Audiovisual), which is insane.
  13. Sec. 7, Business Software: doesn’t mention open source. Completely nuts.
  14. Sec. 8, video games: no mention that this is a golden era for independently-produced games. Not sure that fits our narrative very well, at least not without a lot of explanation.
  15. B2B Services: this feels overly focused on remuneration/commercial licensing; I suppose that is inevitable to some extent, but it seems like it would be worth noting the increased options for free, high-quality content that business can use (e.g., Flickr photos and Commons for stock photography).
  16. “The fact that the legal offers is at least as diverse as the illegal one” – ahhahahhahahhahaha. Really, it is quite amazing that they think that providing a “portal” will increase awareness of legal content. The best way to increase awareness of legal content is to provide it legally online and advertise it as such…

Near the end of the my recent post linked above:

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.

That response has been drafted by Villa and others involved in Wikimedia movement advocacy. I highly recommend the advocacy advisors mailing list, where Villa posted the points above, to anyone interested in changing the framing.

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

2007:

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.

Politics

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.

Refutation

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: