Post Intellectual Protectionism

Hierarchy of mechanisms for limiting copyright and copyright-like barriers to use of Public Sector Information, or More or Less Universal Government License(s)

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

This sketch is in part motivated by a massive proliferation of copyright and copyright-like licenses for government/public sector information, e.g., sub- and sub-sub-national jurisdiction licenses and sector- and jurisdiction-specific licenses intended to combat license proliferation within a sector within a jurisdiction. Also by longstanding concern about coordination among entities working to limit barriers to use of PSI and knowledge commons governance generally.

Everything following concerns PSI only relative to copyright and copyright-like barriers. There are other pertinent regulations and considerations to follow when publishing or using PSI (e.g., privacy and fraud; as these are pertinent even without copyright, it is silly and unnecessarily complicating to include them in copyright licenses) and other important ways to make PSI more useful technically and politically (e.g., open formats, focusing on PSI that facilitates accountability rather than openwashing).

Eliminate copyright and copyright-like restrictions

No longer barriers to use of PSI, because no longer barriers to use of information. May be modulated down to any general copyright or copyright-like barrier reduction, where the barrier is pertinent to use of PSI. Examples: eliminate sui generis database restrictions where they exist, increase threshold of originality required for information to be subject to copyright restriction, expand exceptions and limitations to copyright restrictions, expand affirmative user rights.

Eliminate copyright and copyright-like restrictions for PSI

For example, works produced by employees of the U.S. federal government are not subject to copyright restrictions in the U.S. Narrower exclusions from copyright restrictions (e.g., of laws, court rulings) are fairly common worldwide. These could be generalized to include eliminate copyright and copyright-like restrictions for PSI, worldwide, and expanded to include PSI produced by contractors or other non-government but publicly funded entities. PSI could be expanded to include any information produced with public funding, e.g., research and culture funded by public grants.

“Standard” international licenses for PSI

Public copyright licenses not specifically intended for only PSI are often used for PSI, and could be more. CC0 is by far the best such license, but other Creative Commons (CC) and Open Data Commons (ODC) licenses are frequently used. Depending on the extent to which the licenses used leave copyright and copyright-like restrictions in place (e.g., CC0: none; CC-BY-NC-ND, lots, thus considered non-open) and how they are applied (from legislative mandate for all PSI to one-off use for individual reports and datasets at discretion of agency), could have effect similar to eliminating copyright and copyright-like restrictions for PSI, or almost zero effect.

Universal Government License

Governments at various levels have chosen to make up their own licenses rather than use a standard international license. Some of the better reasons for doing so will be eliminated by the forthcoming version 4.0 of 6 of the CC licenses (though again, CC0 has been the best choice, since 2009, and will remain so). But some of the less good reasons (uncharitable characterization: vanity) can’t be addressed by a standard international license, and furthermore seem to be driving the proliferation of sub-sub-national licenses, down to licenses specific to an individual town.

Ideally this extreme license proliferation trend would terminate with mass implementation of one of the above options, though this seems unlikely in the short term. Maybe yet another standard license would help! The idea of an “open government license” which various governments would have a direct role in creating and stewarding has been casually discussed in the past, particularly several years ago when the current proliferation was just beginning, the CC 4.0 effort had not begun, and CC and ODC were not on the same page. Nobody is particularly incented to make this unwieldy project happen, but nor is it an impossibility — due to the relatively small world of NGOs (such as CC and the Open Knowledge Foundation, of which ODC is a project) and government people who really care and know about public licenses, and the possibility their collective exhaustion and exasperation over license details, incompatibility, and proliferation could reach a tipping point into collective action. There’s a lot to start from, including the research that went into CC-BY-4.0, and the OGL UK 2.0, which is a pretty good open license.

But why think small? How many other problems could be addressed simultaneously?

  • Defend the traditional meaning of ‘open government’ by calling the license something else, e.g., Universal/Uniform/Unified Government License.
  • Rallying point for public sector worldwide to commit more firmly and broadly to limiting copyright and copyright-like barriers to use of PSI, more rapidly establishing global norm, and leading to mandates. The one thing to be said for massive PSI license proliferation could be increased commitment from proliferating jurisdictions to use their custom licenses (I know of no data on this). A successful UGL would swamp any increased local commitment due to local vanity licenses through much higher level expectation and mandate.
  • Make the license work well for software (including being approved by the Open Source Initiative), as:
    • Generically “open” licenses are inevitably used for software, whether the steward apparently intends this (OGL UK 2.0) or does not (CC).
    • The best modern permissive license for software (Apache 2.0) is relatively long and unreadable for what it does, and has an discomfiting name (not nearly as bad as certain pro sports organizations, but still); it ought be superseded.
  • Ensure the license works for other domains, e.g., open hardware, which don’t really require domain-specific licenses, are headed down the path of proliferation and incompatibility, and that governments have obvious efficiency, regulatory, security, and welfare interests in.
  • Foster broader “open innovation community” engagement with government and public policy and vice versa, and more knowledge transfer across OIC domains, on legal instruments at the least.
  • Uniform Public License may be a better name than UGL in some respects (whatever the name, it ought be usable by the public sector, and the general public), but Government may be best overall, a tip of the hat to both the vision within governments that would be necessary to make the license succeed, and to the nature of copyright and copyright-like barriers as government regulatory regimes.

National jurisdiction licenses for PSI

A more likely mechanism for license proliferation deceleration and harm reduction in the near term is for governments within a national jurisdiction to use a single license, and follow various license stewardship and use best practices. Leigh Dodds recently blogged about the problem and highlighted this mechanism in a post titled The Proliferation of Open Government Licences.

Sub-national jurisdiction licenses for PSI

Each province/state and sub-jurisdiction thereof, down to towns and local districts, could use its own vanity license. This appears to be the trend in Canada. It would be possible to push further in this direction with multiple vanity licenses per jurisdiction, e.g., various licenses for various kinds of data, reports, and other materials.

Licenses for each PSI dataset or other work

Each and every government dataset or other publication could come with its own bespoke license. Though these licenses would grant permissions around some copyright and copyright-like restrictions, I suspect their net effect would be to heighten copyright and copyright-like restrictions as a barrier to both the use and publication of PSI, on an increased cost basis alone. This extreme highlights one of the downsides of copyright licenses, even unambiguously open ones — implementing, understanding, and using them can be seen as significant cost centers, creating an additional excuse for not opening materials, and encouraging the small number of people who really understand the mechanisms to be jealous and wary of any other reform.

None

Included for completeness.

Privatization of PSI copyright

Until now, I’ve assumed that copyright and copyright-like restrictions are barriers to use of PSI. But maybe there aren’t enough restrictions, or they aren’t allocated to the right entities, such that maximum value is realized from use of PSI. Control of copyright and copyright-like restrictions in PSI could be auctioned off to entities with the highest ability to extract rents from PSI users. These businesses could be government-owned, with various public-private partnerships in between. This would increase the direct contribution of PSI to GDP, incent the creation and publication of more PSI, ensure PSI is maintained and marketed, reaching citizens that can affordneed it, and provide a solid business model for Government 2.0, academia, cultural heritage, and all other publicly funded and publicly interested sectors, which would otherwise fail to produce an optimal level of PSI and related materials and innovations.

Do not let any of the above trick you into paying more attention to possible copyright and copyright-like barriers and licenses than actually doing stuff, especially with PSI, especially with “data”, doubly with “government data”.

I agree with Denny Vrandečić’s paradoxical sounding but correct directive:

Data is free. Free the data!

I tried to communicate the same in a chapter of the Data Journalism Handbook, but lacked the slogan.

Data is free. Free the data!

And what is not data? ☻

Addendum: Entirely by coincidence (in response to a European Commission consultation on PSI, which I had already forgotten about), today posts by Timothy Vollmer for the Communia Association and Creative Commons call out the license proliferation problem and endorse public domain as the default for PSI.

Innovation Pending

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Does the U.S. Patent System Stifle Innovation? Pro: Christopher Kelty, Laura Sydell. Con: Jaz Banga, Scott Snibbe. Moderator: Eric Goldman. Video:

The moderator was by far the best performer. Watch above, or read his introduction and audience voting instructions.

The pro side’s opening statement was funny, involving the definition of “stifle”, freedom as the oxygen of innovation, and innovation occurring within the iron lungs of large corporations, due to the patent system. Otherwise they stuck to a narrow argument: the current U.S. patent system is beset by trolls (Sydell was a reporter for When Patents Attack and II) and lawsuits and some would-be inventors do give up after realizing they are in a heavily patented field, ergo, the U.S. patent system stifles innovation.

The con side often seemed to make contradictory arguments that didn’t support their side. At one point the moderator interrupted to ask if they were really making a claim they seemed to be; nobody was phased, though I could swear at various points the pro side was looking incredulously at the con side (the recording is at the wrong angle to really see). But their fundamental argument was that there’s lots of innovation happening, patents and IP generally are American as apple pie, and trolls, while bad, aren’t a big deal for companies like Apple with many billions of dollars, ergo, the U.S. patent system does not stifle innovation.

The audience voted for the con side.

In my previous post noting that this debate was coming up, I concluded with “I hope they also consider equality and freedom.” They did a bit with regard to innovators — “freedom to innovate” and how “small” and “large” innovators fare in the system. But I had in mind expanding the discourse to include the effects of innovation policy on the freedom and equality of all humans.

“Patent” and “stifle” were expertly and humorously defined by Goldman and Kelty, but “innovation” remained undefined. The closest the debate came to exploring the contours of what innovation means, or ought mean, may have been in points made about the triviality of some patents, and the contrast between “small” and “large” innovators. Is innovation ‘done in a fashion that has served to maximize the patent encumbrances’ so it can be controlled by Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Monsanto, et al, the innovation we want?

Both the pro and con sides seemed to dislike patent trolls (while disagreeing on their importance). I wonder if any of the participants (particularly the con side) will endorse, or better yet, sign up for the Defensive Patent License (my discussion)? Or any of the other reforms reviewed by Goldman in Fixing Software Patents?

The debate was part of ZERO1 Garage’s Patent Pending exhibition, open through December 20. Each of the exhibited works is somehow related to a patent held or filed for by the artist.

One patent related to a work is pending, thus the work required an NDA for viewing:

nda

The handful of people I showed this image to were each appalled. But, in the context of the show, I have to admit it is cute. And, perhaps unintended, a critique of patent theory — which claims that patents encourage revelation.

Each of the pieces is interesting to experience. I particularly enjoyed the sounds made and shadows cast by (con side debater) Snibbe’s fan work (controlled by blowing through a smaller fan):

fans

My only disappointment from the exhibition is that there wasn’t a touching sample of these bricks, apparently made in part from fungus:

fungus brick

Bonus link: Discussions On The Abolition Of Patents In The UK, France, Germany And The Netherlands, From 1869. As I’ve mentioned before, these debates are nothing new, though it’s popular even for “reformers” to claim that current innovation policy is somehow mismatched with the “digital age”. The only difference between old and current debates is that the public interest is far more buried in the current ones.

Defensive Patent License 1.0 birthday

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Defensive Patent License version 1.0 turned 0 yesterday. The Internet Archive held a small celebration. The FAQ says the license may be used now:

Sign up and start using the DPL by emailing defensivepatent@gmail.com.

There will be a launch conference 2014-02-2811-07 in Berkeley: gratis registration. By that time I gather there should be a list of launch DPL users, a website for registering and tracking DPL users, and a non-profit organization to steward the license, for which the Internet Archive will serve as a 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor.

Loosely organized thoughts follow. But in short:

  • DPL users grant a royalty free license (except for the purpose of cloning products) for their entire patent portfolio, to all other DPL users. This grant is irrevocable, unless the licensee (another DPL user) withdraws from the DPL or initiates patent litigation against any DPL user — but note that the withdrawing or aggressing entity’s grant of patents to date to all other DPL users remains in force forever.
  • Participation is on an entity basis, i.e., a DPL user is an organization or individual. All patents held or gained while a DPL user are included. But the irrevocable license to other DPL users then travels with individual patents, even when transferred to a non-DPL user entity.
  • An entity doesn’t need any patents to become a DPL user.
  • DPL doesn’t replace or conflict with patent peace provisions in modern free/open source licenses (e.g., Apache2, GPLv3, MPL2); it’s a different, complementary approach.
  • It may take years for the pool of DPL users’ patents to be significant enough to gain strong network effects and become a no-brainer for businesses in some industries to join. It may never. But it seems possible, and well worth trying.
  • Immediately, DPL seems like something for organizations that want to make a strong commitment, but a narrow one (only to others making the commitment), to patent non-aggression, ought to get on board with. Entities that want to make a broader commitment, including those that have already made complementary commitments through free/open source licenses or non-aggression pledges for certain uses (e.g., implementing a standard), should also get on board.

History

Last year I’d read Protecting Open Innovation: The Defensive Patent License as a New Approach to Patent Threats, Transaction Costs, and Tactical Disarmament (by Jennifer Urban and Jason Schultz, also main authors of the DPL 1.0) with interest and skepticism, and sent some small comments to the authors. The DPL 1.0, available for use now, incorporates some changes suggested in A Response to a Proposal for a Defensive Patent License (DPL) (and probably elsewhere; quite a few people worked on the license). Both papers are pretty good reads for understanding the idea and some of the choices made in DPL 1.0.

Two new things I learned yesterday are that the DPL was Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle’s idea, and work on the license started in 2009. Kahle had been disturbed that patents with his name on them that he had been told were obtained for defensive purposes while an engineer at Thinking Machines, were later used offensively by an entity that had acquired the patents. This made him wonder if there could be a way for an entity to commit to using patents only defensively. Kahle acknowledged that others have had similar ideas, but the DPL is now born, and it just may be the idea that works.

(No specific previous ideas were mentioned, but a recent one that comes to mind is Paul Graham’s 2011 suggestion of a pledge to not initiate patent litigation against organizations with fewer that 25 employees. Intentionally imprecise, not legally binding, and offering no benefit other than appearing on a web page, probably not surprising it didn’t take off. Another is Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement (2012), in which a company promises an employee to seek their permission for any non-defensive uses of patents in the employee’s name; unclear uptake. Additional concepts are covered at End Soft Patents.)

Kahle, Urban, and Schultz acknowledged inspiration from the private ordering/carving out of free spaces (for what Urban and Schulz call “open innovation communities” to practice) through public licenses such as the GPL and various Creative Commons licenses. But the DPL is rather different in a few big ways (and details which fall out of these):

  1. Subject of grant: patent vs. copyright
  2. Scope of grant: all subject rights controlled by an entity vs individual things (patents or works subject to copyright)
  3. Offered to: club participants vs. general public

I guess there will be a tendency to assume the second and third follow strictly from the first. I’m not so sure — I can imagine free/open source software and/or free culture/open content/data worlds which took the entity and club paths (still occasionally suggested) — and I think the assumption would under-appreciate the creativity of the DPL.

DPL and free/open source software

The DPL is not replacement for patent clauses in free/open source licenses, which are conditions of public copyright licenses with different subject, scope, and audience (see previous). Additionally, the DPL’s non-grant for cloning products, which I do not understand the scope of, probably further reduces any overlap between modern FLOSS license patent provisions and the DPL that may exist. But, I see no conflict, and some complementarity.

A curiosity would be DPL users releasing software under free software licenses without patent provisions, or even with explicit patent non-grants, like CC0. A complementary curiosity would be free/source projects which only accept contributions from DPL users. Yet another would be a new software license only granting copyright permissions to DPL users (this would almost certainly not be considered free/open source), or releasing DPL users from some license conditions (this could be done as an exception to an existing license).

The DPL isn’t going to directly solve any patent problems faced by free/open source software (e.g., encumbered ‘standards’) any time soon. But, to the extent the DPL decreases the private value (expected rents) of patents and encourages more entities to not see patents as useful for collecting rents, this ought push the problems faced away, just a bit. Even if software patents were to evaporate tomorrow (as they should!), users of free/open source software would encounter patents impacted all sorts of devices running said software; patents would still be a problem for software freedom.

I hope that many free/open source software entities become DPL users, for the possible slowly accruing benefits above, but also to make common cause with others fighting for (or reforming slightly towards) intellectual freedom. Participation in broader discourse by free/open source software entities is a must, for the health of free software, and the health of free societies.

End Soft Patents’ entry on the DPL will probably be a good place to check years hence on how the DPL is viewed from the perspective of free/open source software.

DPL “enforcement”

In one sense, the DPL requires no enforcement — it is a grant of permission, which one either takes or not by also becoming a DPL user. But, although it contains provisions to limit obvious gaming, if it becomes significant, doubtless some entities will try to push its boundaries, perhaps by obfuscating patent ownership, or interpreting “cloning” expansively. Or, the ability to leave with 180 days notice could prove to be a gaping hole, with entities taking advantage of the pool until they are ready to file a bunch of patents. Or, the lack of immediate termination of licenses from all DPL users and the costliness of litigation may mean the DPL pool does little to restrain DPL users from leaving, or worse, initiating litigation (or threatening to do so, or some other extortion) against other DPL users.

Perhaps the DPL Foundation with a public database of DPL users will play a strong coordinating function, facilitating uncovering obfuscated ownership, disseminating notice of bad behavior, and revocation of licenses to litigators and leavers.

DPL copyleft?

In any discussion of X remotely similar to free/open source software, the question of “what is copyleft for X?” comes up — and one of the birthday presenters mentioned that the name DPL is a hat tip to the GPL — is the DPL “copyleft for patents”?

It does have reciprocality — only DPL users get DPL grants from other DPL users. I will be surprised if at some point someone doesn’t pejoratively say the DPL is “viral” — because the license to DPL users stays with patents even if they are transferred to a non-DPL user entity. A hereditary effect more directly analogous to the GPL might involve a grant conditioned on an licensee’s other patents which read on the licensed patent being similarly licensed, but this seems ineffective at first blush (and has been thought of and discarded innumerable times).

The DPL doesn’t have a regulatory side. Forced revelation, directly analogous to the GPL’s primary regulatory side, would be the obvious thing to investigate for a DPL flavor, but the most naive requirement (entity must reveal all patentable inventions in order to remain a DPL user in good standing) would be nearly impossible to comply with, or enforce. It may be more feasible to require revelation of designs and documentation for products or services (presumably source code, for software) that read on any patents in the DPL pool. This would constitute a huge compliance and enforcement challenge, and probably very difficult to bootstrap a significant pool, but would be an extremely interesting regulatory experiment if it gained any traction.

DPL “Troll-proof”?

The slogan must be taken with a mountain of salt. Still, the DPL, if widely adopted, would mitigate the troll problem. Because grants to DPL users are irrevocable, and follow a patent upon changes of ownership, any patent with a grant to DPL users will be less valuable for a troll to acquire, because there are fewer entities for the troll to sue. To the extent DPL adoption reduces patenting in an industry, or overall, there will be less ammunition available for trolls to buy and use to hold anyone up. In the extreme of success, all practicing entities become DPL users. Over a couple decades, the swamp is drained.

Patents are still bad

The only worrisome thing I heard yesterday (and I may have missed some nuance) was the idea that it is unfortunate that many engineers, and participants in open innovation communities in particular, see patents as unethical, and that as free/open source software people learned to use public copyright licenses (software was not subject to copyright until 30-40 years ago), they and others should learn to use appropriate patent tools, i.e., the DPL.

First, the engagement of what has become free/open source software, open access, open data, etc., with copyright tools, has not gone swimmingly. Yes, much success is apparent, but compared to what? The costs beg to be analyzed: isolation, conservatism, internal fighting, gaming of tools used, disengagement from policy and boundary-pushing, reduction (and stunting) of ethics to license choice. My ideal, as hinted above, would be for engagement with the DPL to help open innovation communities escape this trap, rather than adding to its weight.

Second, in part because extreme “drain the swamp” level of success is almost certainly not going to be achieved, abolition (of software patents) is the only solution. And beyond software, the whole system should be axed. Of course this means not merely defending innovators, including open innovation communities, from some expense and litigation, but moving freedom and equality to the top of our innovation policy ordering.

DPL open infrastructure?

I hope, in part to make the DPL attractive to existing open innovation communities, I really hope the DPL Foundation will make everything it does free and open with traditional public copyright and publishing tools;

  • Open content: the website and all documentation ought be licensed under CC0 (though CC-BY or CC-BY-SA would be acceptable).
  • Open source/open service: source code of the eventual website, including applications for tracking DPL users, should be developed in a public repository, and licensed under either Apache2 or AGPLv3 (latter if the Foundation wishes to force those using the software elsewhere to reveal their modifications).
  • Open data: all data concerning DPL users, licensed patents, etc., should be machine-readable, downloadable in bulk, and released under CC0.

DPL readability

I found the DPL surprisingly brief and readable. My naive guess, given a description of how it works, would have been something far longer and more inscrutable. But the DPL actually compares to public licenses very favorably on automated readability metrics. Table below shows these for DPL 1.0 and some well known public copyright licenses (lower numbers indicate better readability, except in the case of Flesch; Chars/(Flesch>=1) is my gross metric for how painful it is to read a document; see license automated readability metrics for an explanation):

SHA1 License Characters Kincaid ARI Coleman-Liau Fog Lix SMOG Flesch Chars/(Flesch>=1)
8ffe2c5c25b85e52f42fcde68c2cf6a88b7abd69 Apache-2.0 8310 16.8 19.8 15.1 20.7 64.6 16.6 33.6 247
20dc61b94cfe1f4ba5814b340095b4c3fa23e801 CC-BY-3.0 14956 16.1 19.4 14.1 20.4 66.1 16.2 40.0 373
bbf850220781d9423be9e478fbc07098bfd2b5ad DPL-1.0 8256 15.1 18.9 15.7 18.4 65.9 15.0 40.6 203
0473f7b5cf37740d7170f29232a0bd088d0b16f0 GPL-2.0 13664 13.3 16.2 12.5 16.2 57.0 12.7 52.9 258
d4ec7d0b46077b89870c66cb829457041cd03e8d GPL-3.0 27588 13.7 16.0 13.3 16.8 57.5 13.8 47.2 584
78fe0ed5d283fd1df26be9b4afe8a82124624180 MPL-2.0 11766 14.7 16.9 14.5 17.9 60.5 14.9 40.1 293

Automated readability metrics are probably at best an indicator for license drafters, but offer no guidance on actually improving readability. Last month Luis Villa (incidentally, on the DPL’s advisory board) reviewed a manual of style for contract drafting by editing Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement per the manual’s advice. I enjoyed Villa’s post, but have not attempted to discern (and discernment may be beyond my capability) how closely DPL 1.0 follows the manual’s advice. By the way, Villa’s edit of the IPA per the manual did improve its automated readability metrics:

SHA1 License Characters Kincaid ARI Coleman-Liau Fog Lix SMOG Flesch Chars/(Flesch>=1)
8774cfcefbc3b008188efc141256b0a8dbe89296 IPA 4778 19.6 24.0 15.5 22.7 75.8 17.0 27.1 176
b7a39883743c7b1738aca355c217d1d14c511de6 IPA-MSCD 4665 17.4 21.2 15.6 20.4 70.2 16.0 32.8 142

Net

Go back to the top, read the DPL, get your and other entities in the queue to be DPL users at its launch! Or, explain to me why this is a bad idea.

Social mobilization for the Internet post-epochals grew up with

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Puneet Kishor has organized a book talk tomorrow (2013-11-15) evening in San Francisco by Edward Lee, author of The Fight for the Future: How People Defeated Hollywood and Saved the Internet–For Now (pdf).

I can’t attend, so I watched a recording of a recent talk by Lee and skimmed the book.

The book gives a narrative of the SOPA/PIPA and ACTA protests, nicely complementing Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate, which does what the title says by analyzing relevant posts and links among them.

Lee in the talk and book, and the authors of the mapping report, paint a picture of a networked, distributed, and dynamic set of activists and organizations, culminating in a day of website blackouts and millions of people contacting legislators, and street protests in the case of ACTA.

The mapping report puts the protests and online activity leading up to them in the context of debate over whether the net breeds conversations that are inane and silo’d, or substantive and boundary-crossing: data point for the latter. What does this portend for social mobilization and politics in the future? Unknown: (1) state or corporate interests could figure out how to leverage social mobilization as or more effectively than public interest actors (vague categories yes), (2) the medium itself (which now, a few generations have grown up with, if we allow for “growing up” to extend beyond high school) being perceived at risk may have made these protests uniquely well positioned to mobilize via the medium, or (3) this kind of social mobilization could tilt power in a significant and long-term way.

Lots of people seem to be invested in a version of (3). They may be right, but the immediate outcome makes me sad: the perceived cutting edge of activism amounts to repeated communications optimization, i.e., spam science. Must be the civil society version of “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” This seems eminently gameable toward (1), in addition to being ugly. We may be lucky if (2) is most true.

On the future of “internet freedoms” and social mobilization, Lee doesn’t really speculate. In the talk Q&A, lack of mass protest concerning mass surveillance is noted. The book’s closing words:

“We tried not to celebrate too much because it was just a battle. We won a battle, not the war. We’re still fighting other free trade agreements and intellectual property enforcement that affect individual rights.”

In a way, the fight for digital rights had only just begun.

Of course my standard complaint about this fight, which is decades old at least, is that it does not consist merely of a series of rearguard battles, but also altering the ecosystem.

“I would love it if all patents evaporated” (WebRTC)

Monday, November 11th, 2013

I’ve been following WebRTC (Real Time Communications) because (1) it is probably the most significant addition to the web in terms of enabling a new class of applications at least since the introduction of Ajax (1998, standardized by 2006), and perhaps since the introduction of Javascript (1995, standardized by 1997). The IETF working group charter puts it well (another part of the work is at W3C):

There are a number of proprietary implementations that provide direct interactive rich communication using audio, video, collaboration, games, etc. between two peers’ web-browsers. These are not interoperable, as they require non-standard extensions or plugins to work. There is a desire to standardize the basis for such communication so that interoperable communication can be established between any compatible browsers. The goal is to enable innovation on top of a set of basic components. One core component is to enable real-time media like audio and video, a second is to enable data transfer directly between clients.

(See pad.textb.org (source) for one simple application; simpleWebRTC seems to be a popular library for building WebRTC applications.)

And (2) because WebRTC is the scene of the latest fight to protect open web standards from rent seekers.

The IETF working group is choosing between H.264 Constrained Baseline Profile Level 1.2 and VP8 as the Mandatory To Implement (MTI) video codec (meaning all applications can count on that codec being available) for WebRTC. H.264 cannot be included in free and open source software, VP8 can, due to their respective patent situations. (For audio-only WebRTC applications, the free Opus codec seems to be a non-controversial requirement.)

Cisco has recently promised that in 2014 they will make available a binary implementation of H.264 for which they will pay license fees for all comers (there is an annual cap on fees, allowing them to do this). That’s nice of them, but the offer is far from ideal for any software (a binary must be downloaded from Cisco servers for each user), and a nonstarter for applications without some kind of plugin system, and for free and open source software distributions, which must be able to modify source code.

Last week I remotely attended a meeting on the MTI video codec choice. No consensus was reached; discussion continues on the mailing list. One interesting thing about the non-consensus was the split between physical attendees (50% for H.264 and 30% for VP8) and remote attendees (20% for H.264, 80% for VP8). A point mentioned several times was the interest of “big players” (mostly fine with paying H.264 fees, and are using it in various other products) and “little players” (fees are significant, eg startups, or impossible, eg free and open source projects); depending on one’s perspective, the difference shows how venue biases participation in one or both directions.

Jonathan Rosenberg, the main presenter for H.264, at about 22 minutes into a recording segment:

I would love it if all patents evaporated, if all the stuff was open source in ways that we could use, and we didn’t have to deal with any of this mess.

The argument for why H.264 is the best choice for dealing with “this mess” boils down to H.264 having a longer history and broader adoption than VP8 (in other applications; the two implementation of WebRTC so far, in recent versions of Chrome and Firefox, so far exclusively use VP8).

Harald Alvestrand, the main presenter for VP8, at about 48 minutes into another recording segment:

Development of codecs has been massively hampered and held back by the fact that it has been done in a fashion that has served to maximize the patent encumbrances on codecs. Sooner or later, we should see a way forward to abandon the dependence on encumbered codecs also for video software. My question, at this juncture, is if not now, when?

Unsurprisingly, I find this (along with the unworkability of H.264 for free and open source software) a much more compelling argument. The first step toward making patents evaporate (or at least irrelevant for digital video) is to select a codec which has been developed to maximize freedom, rather than developed to maximize encumbrances and rent collection.

What are individuals and entities pushing H.264 as the best codec for now, given the mess, doing for the longer term? Are they working on H.265, in order to bake in rents for the next generation? Or are they contributing to VP9, the next-next generation Daala, and the elimination of software patents?

Addendum: Version of this post sent to rtcweb@ietf.org (and any followups).

NFL IP II

Friday, November 8th, 2013

In an imperial capital city, expect to see the heads of conquered people on display.

Second time in about a month, someone has suggested US professional football businesses’ ability to censor be modulated if they continue to act against the public interest. First, copyright and civic extortion, now trademark and display of the heads of conquered people.

The first is fantasy at this point. The second may well happen, and not soon enough.

That modulating pro sports businesses’ ability to censor is deemed a potentially powerful incentive to stop bad behavior highlights the role of copyright and trademark in fostering a culture of spectacle and inequality — without these rents, team owners’ wealth and power would decrease significantly.

If professional sport is one of the things that brings classes and cultures in a community together, let’s enhance that by allowing everyone to view, share, make, and vend bits and atoms featuring elements of this togetherness, in their own way, without legal threat from ultra rich business owners.

Yes, let’s bring the heads down; that’ll get us some distance into modernity. But the empire, and its killing and torture, goes on. End that.

Economics and the Commons Conference [knowledge stream] report

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Economics and the Common(s): From Seed Form to Core Paradigm. A report on an international conference on the future of the commons (pdf) by David Bollier. Section on the knowledge stream (which I coordinated; pre-conference post) copied below, followed by an addendum with thanks and vague promises. First, video of the stream keynote (slides) by Carolina Botero (introduced by me; archive.org copy).

III. “Treating Knowledge, Culture and Science as Commons”

Science, and recently, free software, are paradigmatic knowledge commons; copyright and patent paradigmatic enclosures. But our vision may be constrained by the power of paradigmatic examples. Re-conceptualization may help us understand what might be achieved by moving most provisioning of knowledge to the commons; help us critically evaluate our commoning; and help us understand that all commons are knowledge commons. Let us consider, what if:

  • Copyright and patent are not the first knowledge enclosures, but only “modern” enforcement of inequalities in what may be known and communicated?
  • Copyright and patent reform and licensing are merely small parts of a universe of knowledge commoning, including transparency, privacy, collaboration, all of science and culture and social knowledge?
  • Our strategy puts commons values first, and views narrow incentives with skepticism?
  • We articulate the value of knowledge commons – qualitative, quantitative, ethical, practical, other – such that knowledge commons can be embraced and challenged in mainstream discourse?

These were the general questions that the Knowledge, Culture and Science Stream addressed.

Knowledge Stream Keynote Summary

Carolina Botero Cabrera, a free culture activist, consultant and lawyer from Colombia, delivered a plenary keynote for the Knowledge Stream entitled, “What If Fear Changes Sides?” As an author and lecturer on free access, free culture and authors’ rights, Botero focused on the role of information and knowledge in creating unequal power relationships, and how knowledge and cultural commons can rectify such problems.

“If we assume that information is power and acknowledge the power of knowledge, we can start by saying that controlling information and knowledge means power. Why does this matter?” she asked. “Because the control of information and knowledge can change sides. The power relationship can be changed.”

One of the primary motives of contemporary enclosures of information and knowledge, said Botero, is to instill fear in people – fear of violating copyright law, fear of the penalties for doing so. This inhibits natural tendencies to share and re-use information. So the challenge facing us is to imagine if fear could change sides. Can we imagine a switch in power relationships over the control of knowledge – how we produce, distribute and use knowledge? Botero said we should focus on the question: “How can we switch the tendency of knowledge regulation away from enclosure, so that commons can become the rule and not the exception?”

“There are still many ways to produce things, to gain knowledge,” said Botero, who noted that those who use the word “commons” [in the context of knowledge production] are lucky because it helps name these non-market forms of sharing knowledge. “In Colombia, we don’t even have that word,” she said.

To illustrate how customary knowledge has been enclosed in Colombia, Botero told the story of parteras, midwives, who have been shunted aside by doctors, mostly men, who then asserted control over women’s bodies and childbirth, and marginalized the parteras and their rich knowledge of childbirth. This knowledge is especially important to those communities in remote areas of Colombia that do not have access to doctors. There is currently a huge movement of parteras in Colombia who are fighting for the recognition of their knowledge and for the legal right to act as midwives.

Botero also told about how copyright laws have made it illegal to reproduce sheet music for songs written in 18th and 19th century Colombia. In those times, people simply shared the music among each other; there was no market for it. But with the rise of the music industry in the 20th century, especially in the North, it is either impossible or unaffordable to get this sheet music because most of it is copyrighted. So most written music in Colombia consists of illegally photocopied versions. Market logic has criminalized the music that was once natural and freely flowing in Colombian culture. Botero noted that this has increased inequality and diminished public culture.

She showed a global map illustrating which nations received royalties and fees from copyrights and patents in 2002; the United States receives more than half of all global revenues, while Latin America, Africa, India and other countries of the South receive virtually nothing. This is the “power relationships” that Botero was pointing to.

Botero warned, “We have trouble imagining how to provision and govern resources, even knowledge, without exclusivity and control.” Part of the problem is the difficulty of measuring commons values. Economists are not interested, she said, which makes it difficult to go to politicians and persuade them why libraries matter.

Another barrier is our reliance on individual incentives as core value in the system for regulating knowledge, Botero said. “Legal systems of ‘intellectual property’ place individual financial incentives at the center for knowledge regulation, which marginalizes commons values.” Our challenge is to find ways to switch from market logics by showing that there are other logics.

One reason that it is difficult to displace market logics is because we are reluctant or unable to “introduce the commons discourse from the front door instead of through the back door,” said Botero. She confessed that she herself has this problem because most public debate on this topic “is based on the premise that knowledge requires enclosure.” It is difficult to displace this premise by talking about the commons. But it is becoming increasingly necessary to do so as new policy regimes, such as the Transpacific Trade (TPP) Agreement, seek to intensify enclosures. The TPP, for example, seeks to raise minimum levels of copyright restriction, extend the terms of copyrights, and increase the prison terms for copyright violations.

One way to reframe debate, suggested Botero, is to see the commons “not as the absence of exclusivity, but the presence of non-exclusivity. Th is is a slight but important difference,” she said, “that helps us see the plenitude of non-exclusivity” – an idea developed by Séverine Dussolier, professor and director of the Revue Droit des Technologies de l’Information (RDTI, France). This shift “helps us to shift the discussion from the problems with the individual property and market-driven perspective, to a framework and society that – as a norm – wants its institutions to be generative of sharing, cooperation and equality.”

Ultimately, what is needed are more “efficient and effective ways to protect the ethic and practice of sharing,” or as she put it, “better commoning.” Reforming “intellectual property” is only one small part of the universe of knowledge commoning, Botero stressed. It also includes movements for “transparency, privacy, collaboration, and potentially all of science and culture.”

“When and how did we accept that the autonomy of all is subservient to control of knowledge by the few?” asked Botero. “Most important, can we stop this? Can we change it? Is the current tragedy our lack of knowledge of the commons?” Rediscovering the commons is an important challenge to be faced “if fear is going to change sides.”

An Account of the Knowledge, Culture and Science Stream’s Deliberations

There were no presentations in the Knowledge Stream breakout sessions, but rather a series of brief provocations. These were intended to spur a lively discussion and to go beyond the usual debates heard at free and open software/free culture/open science conferences. A primary goal of the breakout discussions was to consider what it means to regard knowledge as a commons, rather than as a “carve-out” exception from a private property regime. The group was also asked to consider how shared knowledge is crucial to all commoning activity. Notes from the Knowledge Stream breakout sessions were compiled through a participatory titanpad, from which this account is adapted.

The Knowledge Stream focused on two overarching themes, each taking advantage of the unique context of the conference:

  1. Why should commoners of all fields care about knowledge commons?
  2. If we consider knowledge first as commons, can we be more visionary, more inclusive, more effective in commoning software, science, culture, seeds … and much more?

The idea of the breakout session was to contextualize knowledge as a commons, first and foremost: knowledge as a subset of the larger paradigm of commons and commoning, as something far more than domain-specific categories such as software, scientific publication and educational materials.

An overarching premise of the Knowledge Stream was the point made by Silke Helfrich in her keynote, that all commons are knowledge commons and all commons are material commons. Saving seeds in the Svalbaard Seedbank are of no use if we forget how to cultivate them, for example, and various digital commons are ultimately grounded in the material reality of computers, electricity infrastructures and the food that computer users need to eat.

There is a “knowledge commons” at the center of each commons. This means that interest in a “knowledge commons” isn’t confined to those people who only care about software, scientific publication, and so on. It also means that we should refrain from classifying commons into categories such as “natural resources” and “digital,” and begin to make the process of commoning itself the focal point.

Of course, one must immediately acknowledge that digital resources do differ in fundamental ways from finite natural resources, and therefore the commons management strategies will differ. Knowledge commons can make cheap or virtually free copies of intangible information and creative works, and this knowledge production is often distributed at very small scales. For cultural commons, noted Philippe Aigrain, a French analyst of knowledge governance and CEO of Sopinspace, a maker for free software for collaboration and participatory democracy, “the key challenge is that average attention becomes scarcer in a world of abundant production.” This means that more attention must be paid on “mediating functions” – curating – and “revising our cultural expectations about ‘audiences’.”

It is helpful to see the historical roots of Internet-enabled knowledge commons, said Hilary Wainwright, the editor behind the UK political magazine Red Pepper and a research at the Transnational Institute. The Internet escalated the practice of sharing knowledge that began with the feminist movement’s recognition of a “plurality of sources.” It also facilitated the socialization of knowledge as a kind of collective action.

That these roots are not widely appreciated points to the limited vision of many knowledge commons, which tend to rely on a “deeply individualistic ethical ontology,” said Talha Syed, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. This worldview usually leads commoners to focus on coercion – enclosures of knowledge commons – as the problem, he said. But “markets are problematic even if there is no monopoly,” he noted, because “we need to express both threats and positive aspirations in a substantive way. Freedom is more than people not coercing us.”

Shun-Ling Chen, a Taiwanese professor of law at the University of Arizona, noted that even free, mass-collaboration projects such as Wikipedia tend to fall back on western, individualistic conceptions of authorship and authority. This obscures the significance of traditional knowledge and history from the perspective of indigenous peoples, where less knowledge is recorded by “reliable sources.”

As the Stream recorded in its notes, knowledge commons are not just about individual freedoms, but about “marginalized people and social justice.” “The case for knowledge commons as necessary for social justice is an undeveloped theme,” the group concluded. But commons of traditional knowledge may require different sorts of legal strategies than those that are used to protect the collective knowledge embodied in free software or open access journal. The latter are both based on copyright law and its premises of individual rights, whereas traditional knowledge is not recognized as the sum of individual creations, but as a collective inheritance and resource.

This discussion raised the question whether provisioning knowledge through commons can produce different sorts of “products” as those produced by corporate enclosures, or whether they will simply create similar products with less inequality. Big budget movies and pharmaceuticals are often posited as impossibilities for commons provision (wrongly, by the way). But should these industries be seen as the ‘commanding heights’ of culture and medicine, or would a commons-based society create different commanding heights?”

One hint at an answer comes from seeing informality as a kind of knowledge commons. “Constructed commons” that rely upon copyright licenses (the GPL for software, Creative Commons licenses for other content) and upon policy reforms, are generally seen as the most significant, reputable knowledge commons. But just as many medieval commons relied upon informal community cooperation such as “beating the bounds” to defend themselves, so many contemporary knowledge commons are powerful because they are based on informal social practice and even illegality.

Alan Toner of Ireland noted that commoners who resist enclosures often “start from a position of illegality” (a point made by Ugo Mattei in his keynote talk). It may be better to frankly acknowledge this reality, he said. After all, remix culture would be impossible without civil disobedience to various copyright laws that prohibit copying, sharing and re-use – even if free culture people sometimes have a problem with such disrespectful or illegal resistance. “Piracy” is often a precursor to new social standards and even ne w legal rules. “What is legal is continent,” said Toner, because practices we spread now set traditions and norms for the future. We therefore must be conscious about the traditions we are creating. “The law is gray, so we must push new practices and organizations need to take greater risks,” eschewing the impulse to be “respectable” in order to become a “guiding star.”

Felix Stalder, a professor of digital culture at Zurich University of the Arts, agreed that civil disobedience and piracy are often precisely what is needed to create a “new normal,” which is what existing law is explicitly designed to prevent. “Piracy is building a de facto commons,” he added, “even if it is unaware of this fact. It is a laboratory of the new that can enrich our understanding of the commons.”

One way to secure the commons for the future, said Philippe Aigrain of Sopinspace, is to look at the specific challenges facing the commons rather than idealizing them or over-relying on existing precedents. As the Stream discussion notes concluded, “Given a new knowledge commons problem X, someone will state that we need a ‘copyleft for X.’ But is copyleft really effective at promoting and protecting the commons of software? What if we were to re-conceptualize copyleft as a prototype for effective, pro-commons regulation, rather than a hack on enclosure?”

Mike Linksvayer, the former chief technology officer of Creative Commons and the coordinator of the Knowledge Stream, noted that copyleft should be considered as “one way to “force sharing of information, i.e., of ensuring that knowledge is in the commons. But there may be more effective and more appropriate regulatory mechanisms that could be used and demanded to protect the commons.”

One provocative speculation was that there is a greater threat to the commons than enclosure – and that is obscurity. Perhaps new forms of promotion are needed to protect the commons from irrelevance. It may also be that excluding knowledge that doesn’t really contribute to a commons is a good way to protect a commons. For example, projects like Wikipedia and Debian mandate that only free knowledge and software be used within their spaces.


Addendum

Thanks to everyone who participated in the knowledge stream. All who prepared and delivered deep and critical provocations in the very brief time allotted:
Bodó Balázs
Shun-Ling Chen
Rick Falkvinge
Marco Fioretti
Charlotte Hess
Gaëlle Krikorian
Glyn Moody
Mayo Fuster Morrell
Prabir Purkayastha
Felix Stalder
Talha Syed
Wouter Tebbens
Alan Toner
Chris Watkins

Also thanks to Mayo Fuster Morrell and Petros for helping coordinate during the stream, and though neither could attend, Tal Niv and Leonhard Dobusch for helpful conversations about the stream and its goals. I enjoyed working with and learned much from the other stream coordinators: Saki Bailey (nature), Heike Löschmann (labor & care), Ludwig Schuster (money), and especially Miguel Said Vieira (infrastructure; early collaboration kept both infrastructure and knowledge streams relatively focused); and stream keynote speaker Carolina Botero; and conference organizers/Commons Strategy Group members: David Bollier, Michel Bauwens, and Silke Helfrich (watch their post-conference interview).

See the conference wiki for much more documentation on each of the streams, the overall conference, and related resources.

If a much more academic and apolitical approach is of interest, note the International Association for the Study of the Commons held its 2013 conference about 10 days after ECC. I believe there was not much overlap among attendees, one exception being Charlotte Hess (who also chaired a session on Governance of the Knowledge and Information Commons at the IASC conference).

ECC only strengthened my feeling (but, of course I designed the knowledge stream to confirm my biases…) that a much more bold, deep, inclusive (domains and methods of commoning, including informality, and populations), critical (including self-critical; a theme broached by several of the people thanked above), and competitive (product: displacing enclosure; policy: putting equality & freedom first) knowledge commons movement, or vanguard of those movements. Or as Carolina Botero put it in the stream keynote: bring the commons in through the front door. I promise to contribute to this project.

ECC also made me reflect much more on commons and commoning as a “core paradigm” for understanding and participating in the arrangements studied by social scientists. My thoughts are half baked at best, but that will not stop me from making pronouncements, time willing.

5 fantasy Internet Archive announcements

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Speaking of public benefit spaces on the internet, tonight the Internet Archive is having its annual celebration and announcements event. It’s a top contender for the long-term most important site on the internet. The argument for it might begin with it having many copies at many points in time of many sites, mostly accessible to the public (Google, the NSA and others must have vast dark archives), but would not end there.

I think the Internet Archive is awesome. Brewster Kahle, its founder, is too. It is clear to me that he’s the most daring and innovative founder or leader in the bay area/non-profit/open/internet field and adjacencies. And he calls himself Digital Librarian. Hear, hear!

But, the Internet Archive could be even more awesome. Here’s what I humbly wish they would announce tonight:

  • A project to release all of the code that runs their websites and all other processes, under free/open source software licenses, and do their work in public repositories, issue trackers, etc. Such crucial infrastructure ought be open to public audit, and welcoming to public contribution. Obviously much of the code is ancient, crufty, and likely has security issues. No reason for embarrassment or obscurity. The code supporting the recording of this era of human communication is itself a dark archive. Danger! Fix it.
  • WikiNurture media collections. I believe media item metadata is now unversioned. It should be versioned. And the public should be able to enhance and correct metadata. Currently media in the Internet Archive is much less useful than it could be due to poor metadata (eg I expect music I download from the archive to not have good artist/album/title tags, making it a huge pain to integrate into my listenng habits, including to tell the world and make popular) and very limited relations among media items.
  • Aggressively support new free media formats, specifically Opus and WebM right now. This is an important issue for the free and open issue, and requires collective action. Internet Archive is in a key position, and should be exploit is strong position.
  • On top of existing infrastructure and much richer data, above, build Netflix-level experiences around the highest quality media in the archive, and perhaps all media with high quality metadata. This could be left to third parties, but centralization is powerful.
  • Finally, and perhaps the deadly combination of most contentious and least exciting: stop paying DRM vendors and publishers. Old posts on this: 1, 2, 3. Internet Archive is not in the position Mozilla apparently think they are, of tolerating DRM out of fear of losing relevance. Physical libraries may think they are in such a position, but only to the extent they think of themselves as book vendors, and lack vision. Please, show leadership to the digital libraries we want in the future, not grotesque compromises, Digital Librarian!

These enhancements would elevate Internet Archive to is proper status, and mean nobody could ever again justifiably say that ‘Aside from Wikipedia, there is no large, popular space being carved out for the public good.’

Addendum: The actual announcements were great, and mostly hinted at on the event announcement post. The Wayback Machine now can instantly archive any URL (“Save Page Now”). I expect to use that all the time, replacing webcitation.org. This post pre-addendum, including many spelling errors (written on the 38 Geary…). Javascript MESS and the software archive are tons of fun: “Imagine every computer that ever existed, in your browser.” No talk of DRM, but also no talk of books, unless I missed something.

Addendum 20131110: “What happened to the Library of Alexandria?” as a lead in to explaining why the Internet Archive has multiple data centers will take on new meaning from a few days ago, when there was a fire at its scanning center (no digital records were lost). Donate.

What’s *really* wrong with the free and open internet — and how we could win it

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

A few days ago Sue Gardner, ED of the Wikimedia Foundation, posted What’s *really* wrong with nonprofits — and how we can fix it. Judging by seeing the the link sent around, it has been read to confirm various conflicting biases different people in the SF bay area/internet/nonprofit space and adjacent already had. May I? Excerpt-based-summary:

A major structural flaw of many nonprofits is that their revenue is decoupled from mission work, which pushes them to focus on providing a positive donor experience often at the expense of doing their core work.

WMF makes about 95% of its money from the many-small-donors model

I spend practically zero time fundraising. We at the WMF get to focus on our core work of supporting and developing Wikipedia, and when donors talk with us we want to hear what they say, because they are Wikipedia readers

I think the usefulness of the many-small-donors model, ultimately, will extend far beyond the small number of nonprofits currently funded by it.

[Because Internet.]

For organizations that can cover their costs with the many-small-donors model I believe there’s the potential to heal the disconnect between fundraising and core mission work, in a way that supports nonprofits being, overall, much more effective.

I agree concerning extended potential. I thought (here comes confirmation of biases) that Creative Commons should make growing its small donor base its number one fundraising effort, with the goal of having small donors provide the majority of funding as soon as possible — realistically, after several years of hard work on that model. While nowhere close to that goal, I recall that about 2006-2009 individual giving grew rapidly, in numbers and diversity (started out almost exclusively US-based), even though it was never the number one fundraising priority. I don’t think many, perhaps zero, people other than me believed individual giving could become CC’s main source of support. Wikimedia’s success in that, already very evident, and its unique circumstance, was almost taken as proof that CC couldn’t. I thought instead Wikimedia’s methods should be taken as inspiration. The “model” had already been proven by nearby organizations without Wikimedia’s eyeballs; e.g., the Free Software Foundation.

An organization that wants to rely on small donors will have to work insanely hard at it. And, if it had been lucky enough to be in a network affording it access to large foundation grants, it needs to be prepared to shrink if the foundations tire of the organization before individual giving supplants them, and it may never fully do so. (But foundations might tire of the organization anyway, resulting in collapse without individual donors.) This should not be feared. If an organization has a clear vision and operating mission, increased focus on core work by a leaner team, less distracted by fundraising, ought be more effective than a larger, distracted team.

But most organizations don’t have a clear vision and operating mission (I don’t mean words found in vision and mission statements; rather the shared and deep knowing-what-we’re-trying-to-do-and-how that allows all to work effectively, from governance to program delivery). This makes any coherent strategic change more difficult, including transitioning to small donor support. It also gives me pause concerning some of the bits of Gardner’s post that I didn’t excerpt above. For most organizations I’d bet that real implementation of nonprofit “best practices” regarding compliance, governance, management, reporting, etc, though boring and conservative, would be a big step up. Even trying to increase the much-maligned program/(admin+fundraising) ratio is probably still a good general rule. I’d like to hear better ones. Perhaps near realtime reporting of much more data than can be gleaned from the likes of a Form 990 will help “big data scientists” find better rules.

It also has to be said that online small donor fundraising can be just as distracting and warping (causing organization to focus on appearing appealing to donors) as other models. We (collectively) have a lot of work to do on practices, institutions, and intermediaries that will make the extended potential of small donor support possible (read Gardner’s post for the part I lazily summarized as [Because Internet.]) in order for the outcome to be good. What passes as savvy advice on such fundraising (usually centered around “social media”) has for years been appalling and unrealistic. And crowdfunding has thus far been disappointing in some ways as an method of coordinating public benefit.

About 7 months ago Gardner announced she would be stepping down as ED after finding a replacement (still in progress), because:

I’ve always aimed to make the biggest contribution I can to the general public good. Today, this is pulling me towards a new and different role, one very much aligned with Wikimedia values and informed by my experiences here, and with the purpose of amplifying the voices of people advocating for the free and open internet. I don’t know exactly what this will look like — I might write a book, or start a non-profit, or work in partnership with something that already exists.

My immediate reaction to this was exactly what Виктория wrote in reply to the announcement:

I cannot help but wonder what other position can be better for fighting consumerisation, walling-in and freedom curtailment of the Internet than the position of executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

I could take this as confirming another of my beliefs: that the Wikimedia movement (and other constructive free/open movements and organizations) do not realize their potential political potency — for changing the policy narrative and environment, not only taking rear guard actions against the likes of SOPA. Of course then, the Wikimedia ED wouldn’t think Wikimedia the most effective place from which to work for a free and open internet. But, my beliefs are not widely held, and likely incorrect. So I was and am mostly intrigued, and eager to see what Gardner does next.

After reading the What’s *really* wrong with nonprofits post above, I noticed that 4 months ago Gardner had posted The war for the free and open internet — and how we are losing it, which I eagerly read:

[non-profit] Wikipedia is pretty much alone. It’s NOT the general rule: it’s the exception that proves the rule.

The internet is evolving into a private-sector space that is primarily accountable to corporate shareholders rather than citizens. It’s constantly trying to sell you stuff. It does whatever it wants with your personal information. And as it begins to be regulated or to regulate itself, it often happens in a clumsy and harmful way, hurting the internet’s ability to function for the benefit of the public. That for example was the story of SOPA.

[Stories of how Wikipedia can fight censorship because it is both non-profit and very popular]

Aside from Wikipedia, there is no large, popular space being carved out for the public good. There are a billion tiny experiments, some of them great. But we should be honest: we are not gaining ground.

The internet needs serious help if it is to remain free and open, a powerful contributor to the public good.

Final exercise in confirming my biases (this post): yes, what the internet needs is more spaces carved our for the public good — more Wikipedias — categories other than encyclopedia in which a commons-based product out-competes proprietary incumbents, increasing equality and freedom powerfully in both the short and long (capitalization aligned with rent seeking demolished) term. Wikipedia is unique in being wildly successful and first and foremost a website, but not alone (free software collectively must many times more liberating by any metric, some of it very high profile, eg Firefox; Open Access is making tremendous progress, and I believe PLOS may have one of the strongest claims to operating not just to make something free, but to compete directly with and eventually displace incumbents).

A free and open internet, and society, needs intense competition from commons-based initiatives in many more categories, including those considered the commanding heights of culture and commerce, eg premium video, advertising, social networking, and many others. Competition does not mean just building stuff, but making it culturally relevant, meaning making it massively popular (which Wikipedia lucked into, being the world’s greatest keyword search goldmine). Nor does it necessarily mean recapitulating proprietary products exactly, eg some product expectations might moved to ones more favorable to mass collaboration.

Perhaps Gardner’s next venture will aim to carve out a new, popular space for the public good on the internet. Perhaps it will be to incubate other projects with exactly that aim (there are many experiments, as her post notes, but not many with “take overliberate the world” vision or resources; meanwhile there is a massive ecosystem churning out and funding attempts to take over the world new proprietary products). Perhaps it will be to build something which helps non-profits leverage the extended potential of the small donor model, in a way that maximizes public good. Most likely, something not designed to confirm my biases. ☺ But, many others should do just that!

The real Open Source _ proliferation problem

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

The Open Source Initiative, best known for keeping a list of licenses compliant with its Open Source Definition, has hired its first-ever full time paid staffer, Patrick Masson as General Manager.

Masson’s blog has lots of good entries (if you just want to be amused, try a 10 year press release diff). One thing he bemoans repeatedly and pithily (It’s “many eyeballs…” not “many projects…”) is too much fragmentation and too little collaboration among open source projects. His most recent post, Joiners, Not Starters:

What’s painful is that there are already over 350 open source communities developing learning management systems. I find it frustrating and hypocritical to hear, “This is a great time to get involved for people who are interested in helping to shape this project…” from people who chose not to get involved–rather, choosing to do something on their own. Why is it a great time to join the Adapt project over any other existing effort looking to build community for support, contribution and collaboration? Why didn’t the folks who are developing Adapt take advantage of this great time in open source development and join an existing initiative? Indeed, couldn’t every current open source project (substituting out Adapt for their own name) use the above announcement to generate awareness and adoption of their own project?

Sounds just like the first question/advice for anyone looking to start a new organization. Economies of scale are hard to beat. But fragmentation is much worse for software, so much of its value coming from network effects. When lots of people, preferably most of the relevant population, are using a software application, it’s easy to find training, advice, employees, commercial support, and preinstalls of that software. It is easy to figure out which software is pertinent. Massively valuable stuff. Oh, and more people contributing to making the software better, if it is open source.

When there are lots of open source alternatives for a particular kind of software, and this contributes to none of them being dominant, the ability of open source to compete with proprietary vendors and deliver freedom to users and society, is severely hampered. More or less killed. (The inverse can also be true, but probably with many fewer instances.) The Linux desktop is probably an example. Further, public policy is negatively impacted: fragmented projects serve at best as existence proofs, dominant open projects powerfully shape the policy conversation, and the policy ecosystem — by wiping out the capitalization of entities aligned with rent seeking.

People who know the open source world well like to worry about about “license proliferation” (which the OSI’s license list mentioned at the beginning serves to throttle) and related, license incompatibility. I do too, including in and across nearby spaces, to the extent I think it is a minor tragedy that licenses first developed for software didn’t also come to dominate culture, data, hardware, etc, yet. But I’m pretty sure the open world could cope with each project adapting or developing a license just for its own use, though it would be hugely annoying. Fortunately, progress has often been in the right direction.

Project/program proliferation and related dwarfish network effects and collaboration are much, much bigger problems. There are cases where a dominant program has arisen from a highly fragmented field (eg WordPress among a mess of open source blog engines, Django among lots of Python web framework, git among a smaller number of distributed version control systems), but I’m not sure this has ever come about because people agitated against proliferation. There are standards-like collaborations among projects, such as freedesktop.org, which can result in more sharing of code and collaboration among projects, but I’m not sure do much to enable mass adoption and network effects. What more can be done, given that of course it will always be acceptable, often educational, and very occasionally wildly successful to work on Yet Another Foo?

  • The low-hanging fruit is to help projects become easier for new contributors to get involved in, and friendly for staying involved in. Decrease the cost of contributing to existing projects, more will choose to do that rather than start, or leave to start, new projects.
  • I don’t have much insight into the politically charged process of picking winners and merging efforts. Distributions (which are themselves terribly fragmented) probably already do a lot. Could they do more? Could institutions broker mergers? Could OSI? Stun all by bringing LibreOffice and OpenOffice together. GNOME, KDE, and Unity as well. How about federated social web efforts?
  • Marketing, promotion, sales. These are what any large proprietary software company does (same outside software, for publishing, etc.), and what open source projects need a lot more of, both to compete directly with proprietary industry, and to help winners with huge network effects emerge.

Each of these points also apply very strongly to non-software projects.

Another thing Masson repeatedly bemoans on his blog, and that I very much agree with, is the lack of “open” advocates eating their own dogfood — using open things other than the one they’re promoting, or open things from fields other than the one they’re supposedly opening:

However with so little folks actually interested in openness, but rather promoting their open product, we just don’t see the level of adoption we should with all open initiatives. Basically, if I can be blunt, you’re a hypocrite if you get up in front of your peers to proclaim the superiority of your project because it embraces open principles and practices, arguing it is those principles and practices that yield better products, but you yourself have not adopted other open resources. “Hold on, let me open up PowerPoint to tell you about how bad commercial software is.”

This not only harms network effects (or rather, has “open” advocates contributing to the network effects of proprietary software, culture, etc), but reduces knowledge transfer across open projects and fields. Masson seems to come from the education technology world; if that is anything like the open education[al resources] world, I suspect he’s speaking from painful experience.

Congratulations to OSI and Masson. I look froward to amazing progress on the above problems and many others! You can support their work by joining OSI as an individual member. Of course I also recommend joining the Free Software Foundation as an individual member. Because open source means freedom.