Post Politics

Protect commons from patents

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Rob Landley has a good idea: software patents shouldn’t apply to public domain software. This is exactly the kind of commons-favoring reform that ought be topmost on the agenda of anyone who cares about a good [digital] future. It will take years for many such reforms to be feasible. This only means it is urgent for commoners of all free/open stripes to begin thinking of themselves collectively as a politically potent self-interested group, not as merely surviving through private opt-outs from increasingly bad regulation and reaction against apparent existential threats.

I’m a huge fan of the public domain and think that among private opt-outs, public domain instruments ought be used much more than they are. Landley makes an interesting case (historical and otherwise, read his full post) for limiting protection from software patents to public domain software rather than any free/open source software, but I disagree — in this reform step, it makes sense to protect developers and users of any free/open source software from patents with regard to that software.

Up to the last paragraph the rest of this post is dedicated to this disagreement (and in another sense of dedicated, to the public domain, as is everything by me), but don’t let that distract from my overall appreciation of Landley’s post — read the whole thing (his blog is also interesting overall, stylistically like early blogs, and it does have posts back to 2002, though I’ve only been following it approximately since the first link in previous paragraph: see link text “disagree”, appropriately enough).

Landley writes:

The reason to say “public domain” instead of “open source” is partly that open source is difficult to legally define

Public domain hasn’t got that problem. It avoids the whole can of worms of what is and isn’t: the code is out there with zero restrictions.

1) Existing law and regulation deals with “open source”, e.g. the U.S. Department of Defense and the Italian government. This is no significant obstacle. On the other hand, “public domain” has another problem: FUD about whether it is “legally possible” to put new works in the public domain and whether various public domain instruments “work”. This FUD needs to be combated, but I think it’ll be more effective to do so in part by getting public domain instruments recognized as free/open instruments by various gatekeepers than by dumping FUD on the same.

The price for freedom from patents should be zero restrictions: if the authors have no control over what people can do with it, why should uninvolved third parties have a say? Ideally the smooth, frictionless legal surface of the public domain should go both ways.

That’s the constitutional argument: freely redistributable, infinitely replicable code serves the stated constitutional purpose of copyrights and patents better than patents do. Releasing your copyrights into the public domain should also prevent patent claims on that code.

2) That’s a fine assertion, but it’s really outside the free/open source (and nearby) consensus on software patents: they should be abolished, i.e., one should not have to give up anything to be protected from them. Changing the focus to strategically demanding freedom from patents for free/open source software (while still agreeing they ought be abolished for all) would mark a huge shift in the imagination of the movement(s). Limiting the scope of protection to only public domain software: how is it imaginable to take that idea beyond an interesting blog post? I wish a huge constituency for public domain software existed, but as of now it is a rounding error.

3) Zero restrictions is a fine ideal (indeed, copyright and patent should be abolished entirely), but whether viewed as a “price” or grant of permissions, releasing work under any free/open license makes very significant grants. Attendant conditions may be annoying, self-defeating, necessary, or something else depending on one’s perspective (I try to view them charitably as prototypes for more effective regulation not based on copyright holder whim, but also think it is worthwhile to try to improve them, and, as above, encourage more use of public domain instruments) but obviously these licenses are adequate to facilitate vibrant commons projects (essentially all well known free/open source software, except for SQLite and djbware, which use public domain dedications), and it is the actual commons that needs to be favored, not some idealized zero friction symmetry between patent and copyright.

The historical reason to say “public domain” instead of “open source license” is possible legal precedent: back when software was unpatentable, it was also uncopyrightable. An awful lot of public domain software used to exist, and when people added copyrights to it, they opened it to patents as well. Software that _isn’t_ copyrighted, historically, also wasn’t patented. If somebody tries to enforce patents against public domain software, we can make a clear distinction and ask a judge to opine.

4) I’m not a lawyer, but I’d bet heavily against us winning. Happy to be wrong.

5) I’ve already mentioned size of the constituency for (2) and quantity of (3) free/open source software relative to only public domain software, but these bear repeating in the form of size of benefit. Protecting all free/open source software from patents would immediately benefit millions of free/open source software developers and users, and solve big problems for free/open source software and standards. There would be essentially no immediate benefit from only protecting public domain software from patents. Long term it would encourage more public domain software. To make that extremely lopsided trade off one has to believe that free/open source licenses are really, really awful relative to the public domain. I can understand that belief emotionally, but don’t think what evidence we have about success of various projects bears the belief out. Rather, the specific conditions (including none) just aren’t all that important so long as a minimum of permissions are granted. Exclusive public domain advocates may hate licenses, but licenses just don’t matter that much!

As the title of this post implies, free/open source software (inclusive of public domain software) is not the only commons threatened by patents that ought be favored through blanket protection from patents. Defining some of these (e.g., for seeds, 3D printing, general purpose robotics, and synthetic biology?) will be harder, in part because there may be no “well understood term in the trade” such as “open source”, but this is a much smaller hurdle (indeed, a sub-sub-task of) than organizing the relevant constituencies and making the case to the public and policymakers that favoring commons is indeed good policy.

Empowered Mozilla?

Friday, April 4th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brendan Eich’s going away post:

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

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

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

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

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

Counter-donate in support of marriage equality and other Mozilla-related notes

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

I’m a huge fan of Mozilla and think their work translates directly into more human rights and equality. So like many other people, I find it pretty disturbing that their new CEO, Brendan Eich, donated US$1000 in support of banning same sex marriage. True, this is scrutiny beyond which most organizations’ leaders would receive, and Mozilla in deed seems to have excellent support for LGBT employees, endorsed by Eich, and works to make all welcome in the Mozilla community. But I think Evan Prodromou put it well:

If you lead an organization dedicated to human rights, you need to be a defender of human rights.

Maybe Eich will change his mind. Perhaps he believes an ancient text attributed to an ultra powerful being commands him to oppose same sex marriage. Believers have come around to support all kinds of liberal values and practices in spite of such texts. Perhaps he considers marriage an illegitimate institution and would prefer equality arrive through resetting marriage to civil unions for all, or something more radical. I can comprehend this position, but it isn’t happening this generation, and is no excuse for delaying what equality can be gained now.

Freedom to Marry logoIn the meantime one thing that Mozilla supporters might do to counter Eich’s support for banning same sex marriage, short of demanding he step down (my suspicion is that apart from this he’s the best person for the job; given what the mobile industry is, someone from there would likely be a threat to the Mozilla mission) is to “match” it in kind, with counter-donations to organizations supporting equal rights for LGBT people.

Freedom to Marry seems to be the most directly counter to Eich’s donation, so that’s what I donated to. The Human Rights Campaign is probably the largest organization. There are many more in the U.S. and around the world. Perhaps Eich could counter his own donation with one to an organization working on more basic rights where homosexuality is criminalized (of course once that is taken care of, they’ll demand the right to marry too).

Other Mozilla-related notes that I may otherwise never get around to blogging:

  • Ads in new tabs (“directory tiles”) have the potential to be very good. More resources for Mozilla would be good, “diversification” or not. Mozilla’s pro-user stance ought make their design and sales push advertisers in the direction of signaling trustworthiness, and away from the premature optimization of door-to-door sales. They should hire Don Marti, or at least read his blog. But the announcement of ads in new tabs was needlessly unclear.
  • Persona/BrowserID is brilliant, and with wide adoption would make the web a better place and further the open web. I’m disappointed Mozilla never built it into Firefox, and has stopped paying for development, handing it over to the community. But I still hold out some hope. Mozilla will continue to provide infrastructure indefinitely. Thunderbird seems to have done OK as a community development/Mozilla infrastructure project. And the problem still needs to be solved!
  • Contrary to just about everyone’s opinions it seems, I don’t think Mozilla’s revenue being overwhelmingly from Google is a threat, a paradox, or ironic. The default search setting would be valuable without Google. Just not nearly as valuable, because Google is much better at search and search ads than its nearest competitors. Mozilla has demonstrated with FirefoxOS that they’re willing to compete directly with Google in a hugely valuable market (mobile operating systems, against Android). I have zero inside knowledge, but I’d bet that Mozilla would jump at the chance to compete with Google on search or ads, if they came upon an approach which could reasonably be expected to be superior to Google’s offerings in some significant ways (to repeat, unlike Google’s nearest search and ads competitors today). Of course Mozilla is working on an ads product (first item), leveraging Firefox real estate rather than starting two more enormous projects (search and search ads; FirefoxOS must be enough for now).
  • The world needs a safe systems programming language. There have been and are many efforts, but Mozilla-developed Rust seems to have by far the most promise. Go Rust!
  • Li Gong of Mozilla Taiwan and Mozilla China was announced as Mozilla’s new COO at the same time Eich was made CEO. I don’t think this has been widely noted. My friend Jon Phillips has been telling me for years that Li Gong is the up and coming power. I guess that’s right.

I’m going to continue to use Firefox as my main browser, I’ll probably get a FirefoxOS phone soon, and I hope Mozilla makes billions with ads in new tabs. As I wrote this post Mozilla announced it supports marriage equality as an organization (even if the CEO doesn’t). Still, make your counter-donation.

Innovation Policy in a World With Less Scarcity

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Mark Lemley‘s new paper IP in a World Without Scarcity provides good overviews of the case “that on the Internet, we increasingly get creativity in spite of, rather than because of, IP law” — the exclusivity incentive for creation story, if it were ever true, is drowning in non-exclusive creativity, and theories that distribution and revelation also require an exclusivity incentive also seem quaint given the Internet — and of 3D printing, general purpose robotics, and synthetic biology, which “share two essential characteristics with the Internet: they radically reduce the cost of production and distribution of things, and they separate the informational content of those things (the design) from their manufacture.” Thus, Lemley argues, economics and policy need increasingly to grapple with an end to scarcity, IP will be increasingly important, and we can draw lessons from the Internet about how this all will and should play out.

The paper is a quick read at 55 double-spaced pages. I recommend it to anyone interested in near future technology and policy. The paper’s final sentence:

Thinking about such questions has been the province of science fiction authors, but understanding what a post-scarcity economy will look like is the great task of economics for the next century.

Lemley cites two SF books very familiar to many readers: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (my positive review) and The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson, which just a few days ago I exploited in a private communication: “…the primer is an interactive learning notebook which adapts as the owner learns, informing a generation of geeks’ vision of education and development. Such tools are increasingly feasible. Will all humans have full access to, and ability to participate in the development of such tools? Only if they are developed in the commons, which will only happen with intentional action.” That’s probably a good segue into my disagreements with and additional idiosyncratic observations about IP in a World Without Scarcity.

By IP, Lemley means intellectual property: mostly copyright, patent, trademark. That has been and will be increasingly a terrible frame for thinking about policy. It gives away the farmfuture to owners of the past, who, as Lemley notes “will fight the death of scarcity” as they have fought the Internet — with more criminalization, more lawsuits, more attempts to fundamentally alter technologies in order to protect their rents. This seems rather suboptimal given that we know the theory upon which IP rests is largely bunk. The alternative, assuming we still only wish to maximize innovation, is to make innovation policy the frame. This makes turning the enclosure dial up or down a sideshow, and pulls in non-enclosure incentives and a host of more indirect and probably much more important determinants of innovation, e.g., education and governance.

The paper provides a couple reasons for focusing on the enclosure version of IP (Lemley doesn’t need any reason; he’s an IP scholar, and though I wish such people would reconceptualize themselves as commons scholars, I have no expectation; in any case the “reasons” are my reading). First, the framing isn’t as harmful as I made it out to be, because IP owners’ fight against the Internet “didn’t work. Copyright infringement remains rampant” and against other democratizing technologies, “IP owners will (probably) lose that fight.” But winning isn’t binary, nor is the continued existence of rampant copyright infringement a good indicator.

Given that network effects are highly relevant for many kinds of knowledge products — a tool or experience is much more valuable if other people can be expected to know it — a significant level of piracy can be profit-maximizing for an IP rent collector. Better indicators might be the collapse of profits from IP rents (the movie industry continues to grow, and while the recorded music industry has declined from its peak, this is nothing like an icehouse collapse, and many other IP rent sectors continue to grow) and the displacement of IP rent collectors as the marketers the dominant knowledge products of the age by other entities better adapted to a world in which fighting against the Internet doesn’t work (the mass and high-status markets are dominated by IP rent collectors in nearly all fields, exceptions being encyclopedias and certain kinds of infrastructure software). These might be minor, highly debatable (maybe the music industry will soon recommence a full collapse, be joined by movies, both displaced by crowdfunding and crowdmarketing; I doubt it given the properties controlled by IP rent collectors and other entities’ unchanged desperation to cut unfavorable deals with them) quibbles, if the IP owners’ “losing” fight against the Internet hadn’t significantly damaged the Internet.

But the Internet has been damaged by the IP owners’ fight. Absent an academic characterization of how significant that damage is (which I would love to read), here are some of the ways:

  • Chilling effect on P2P research, result: more centralization;
  • Services police user content; expensive, barrier to entry, result: more centralization, near monopoly platforms;
  • Services cut rare and unfavorable deals with IP owners, result: same;
  • Innovative services fail to cut deals, or sustainable deals, with IP owners, result: less innovation, more Internet as TV;
  • Monopoly abets monopoly; creates opportunities for bundling monopolies, result: threat to net neutrality;
  • Copyright-based censorship provides cover for all kinds of political censorship, result: political censors have additional justification, doing what Hollywood does;
  • All of above centralization and monopoly makes dominant entities a target for compromise, result: mass surveillance and non-state cybercrime abetted;
  • Our imagination and expectation of what the Internet makes possible is diminished, result: DRM TV and radio and silos organized for spying are seen as the norm, information organized for public benefit such as Wikipedia, unusual; this flipping of democratic hopes for the Internet, a partial AOL scenario, is collateral damage from the IP owners’ war on the Internet.

Similar damage will be done to the potential of new technologies with Internet-like characteristics (in addition to those discussed in the paper, others add the Internet of Things, distributed energy generation, and educational technologies, e.g., Jeremy Rifkin in his new book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which I plan to review soon) by incumbents. This makes Lemley’s policy recommendations seem overly tentative and timid:

[It] is hard to translate this skepticism into immediate policy prescriptions, both because the whole point is that the need for IP will be sensitive to individual industry characteristics and because the technologies I am discussing are still in their infancy [...] “we should resist the tendency to expand IP reflexively to meet every new technological challenge” [...] “IP owners should not be allowed to reach beyond suing infringers and seek to shut down or modify the technology itself” [...] “IP law needs to make it easier for creators to opt out of the IP regime.”

IP rent collectors will not hold off protecting their interests pending idealized analysis of more fully developed technologies. The damage they do will be built into another generation of technology and society, with IP scholars and activists left to worry that policy is contrary to evidence and to take rearguard actions to protect the level of openness they’ve become accustomed to, but fail to imagine what would have been possible had the stranglehold of IP rent collectors been broken. Just like the Internet today. I’ll come back to less timid and more proactive policy response in a bit.

Second reason for focus on the enclosure version of IP, the usual — big budget movies (and regulated pharma, mentioned earlier in the paper):

There is still a role for IP on the Internet. There are some works that are so costly to create even in the digital world that they are unlikely to be made without effective IP protection. Big-budget movies and video games cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. No amount of creative fire will drive someone who doesn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to make Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. They need corporate backing, and the corporate backers need a revenue stream. But in the Internet era those works are increasingly the the exception, not the rule.

My usual response — we should allow enclosure of our freedom, equality, and the democratic potential of the Internet in order to ensure an ongoing supply of spectacle provided in the same way it has for decades? Spectacle over freedom, really? Of course the “reason” is far more pessimal than that, as the cost of producing and distributing spectacle is going down fast, as is the cost of coordinating distributed patrons who want product, not rent collection. Further, because culture is also so dominated by network effects, we’ll all love whatever spectacle is produced, whether it took 15 or 500 months of work per minute of spectacle. It’s not as insane to contemplate threatening liberal values in order to get new drugs as it is to get new movies — but then considering non-enclosure mechanisms for developing and evaluating new drugs, and the issues of access and equality are more pressing…

More Lemley:

IP is essentially a form of government regulation. The government restricts entry into the market, or alternatively controls the price at which that entry can occur, in order to serve valuable social ends. But regulation is not a moral entitlement or something that we must take for granted. In the past, government regulated all sorts of industries – railroads, trucking, electric power, gas, telephones – because it could not see given the economics of those industries how a free market could produce socially optimal results. But in a surprising number of cases, when we deregulated those industries we found that the market could indeed find a way to supply goods we thought would be provided only with government rule-making. IP is no different in this respect than any other form of regulation. Regulation as a whole shouldn’t disappear, but regulation of particular industries often turns out to be a reflexive response to a failure of imagination, something we do because we have done it for so long that we cannot imagine how a market in that industry could function without it.

This is certainly superior to the rights/owner/property characterization inherent in IP — it recasts “owners” as beneficiaries of regulation — and I think implicitly makes the case for switching one’s frame from intellectual property to innovation policy. That leads us to what the goal of “innovation policy” regulation ought be, and sufficiently proactive policies to achieve that. Should the goal be to maximize “innovation”, “creativity”, the “progress of science and useful arts”, or the like? It would be a huge improvement to sideline enclosure as the primary mechanism and retain the same top objective. But even that improvement would be short sighted, given how systematically innovation policy regulation has and will increasingly shape society. A success of imagination would be to make freedom and equality the top objectives of and constraints on innovation policy, and only then maximize innovation. The innovations generated by a free and equal society are the ones I want. Others are to be gawked at with dismay and guilt.

On proactive policies required, in brief the are pro-commons policies, and I return to Benkler:

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.

Which implies that commons scholarship ought displace intellectual property scholarship (except as a historical investigation of commons malgovernance).

I realize that I haven’t provided any specific pro-commons policy recommendations in this post, nevermind any that are especially pertinent in a world with less scarcity. I’m deeply skeptical that lower, different costs substantially change innovation policy or knowledge commons arguments — the same ones have recurred since at least the 1800s — and am extremely doubtful that the usual assumption that digital networks fundamentally change desirable policy (or here, that further technologies with digital network like characterizations further change desirable policy) is true or non-harmful — these assumptions give away (legitimize) the past to those who now use it to control the future. Some short term and narrow but valuable pro-commons policy suggestions arising from the Wikimedia movement; the free software movement offers other suggestions, if we take some of its practices as prototypes for regulation enforced by mechanisms other than copyright holder whim, more powerful and better aligned with its claims of software freedom as a human right.

A few final quotes from Lemley’s IP in a World Without Scarcity, first two from footnotes:

The challenge posed to copyright by collective production sites like Wikipedia is not just one of the need for incentives. Collective production challenges the whole concept of authorship.

Indeed, and as I keep repeating effective product competition from the commons (such as Wikipedia) re-imagines the range of desirable policy and reduces the resources available to enclosure industries to lobby for protectionism — in sum shifting what is politically possible.

It is possible that creators create in hopes of being one of the few superstars whose work is actually rewarded by copyright law. It is well known that people systematically overvalue the prospect of a large but unlikely reward; that’s why they buy lottery tickets. Some scholars have suggested that the same effect may be at work in IP. But if so, the incentive on which we rely is, as Kretschmer puts it, “based on a systematic cognitive mistake.” In effect, we are coaxing works out of these creators by lying to them about their chances of getting paid.

This has long struck me as being the case. The question is then (in addition to considerations above), do we really want a culture dominated by fools and sell-outs?

A world without scarcity requires a major rethinking of economics, much as the decline of the agrarian economy did in the 19th century. How will our economy function in a world in which most of the things we produce are cheap or free? We have lived with scarcity for so long that it is hard even to begin to think about the transition to a post-scarcity economy. IP has allowed us to cling to scarcity as an organizing principle in a world that no longer demands it. But it will no more prevent the transition than agricultural price supports kept us all farmers. We need a post-scarcity economics, one that accepts rather than resists the new opportunities technology will offer us. Developing that economics is the great task of the 21st century.

But we should aim for much better than the travesty of developed country agricultural policy (even before considering its baneful intersection with IP) as the legacy of this transition! But the consequences of continued capture of innovation policy have the potential to be far worse. Even if few are employed in information industries, there is no transition on the way to displace arranging information as the dominant mode of the economy (however measured; previous modes being hunting/gathering, agriculture, and industry); if the mode is largely controlled by rent collectors, the result could be a very unfree and unequal society — perhaps on the order of pre-industrial agricultural societies.

Free Bassel & Open Borders Days

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

March 15, another year of Bassel Khartibil‘s life as a political prisoner in Syria. Some friends put together a cookbook (pdf) with meals they’d like to share with him when he is free.


Macabre image for a macabre situation.

March 16 is Open Borders Day. Bassel apparently returned to Syria voluntarily. There are millions who have little chance of leaving dictatorships, war zones, and grinding poverty — not because they are imprisoned by the local regime, but because we allow the international apartheid system to stand.

Gov[ernance]Lab impressions

Friday, March 7th, 2014

First, two excerpts of my previous posts to explain my rationale for this one. 10 months ago:

I wonder the extent to which reform of any institution, dominant or otherwise, away from capture and enclosure, toward the benefit and participation of all its constituents, might be characterized as commoning?

Whatever the scope of commoning, we don’t know how to do it very well. How to provision and govern resources, even knowledge, without exclusivity and control, can boggle the mind. I suspect there is tremendous room to increase the freedom and equality of all humans through learning-by-doing (and researching) more activities in a commons-orientated way. One might say our lack of knowledge about the commons is a tragedy.

26:

Other than envious destruction of power (the relevant definition and causes of which being tenuous, making effective action much harder) and gradual construction of alternatives, how can one be a democrat? I suspect more accurate information and more randomness are important — I’ll sometimes express this very specifically as enthusiasm for futarchy and sortition — but I’m also interested in whatever small increases in accurate information and randomness might be feasible, at every scale and granularity — global governance to small organizations, event probabilities to empirically validated practices.

I read about the Governance Lab @ NYU (GovLab) in a forward of a press release:

Combining empirical research with real-world experiments, the Research Network will study what happens when governments and institutions open themselves to diverse participation, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and seek input and expertise from a range of people.

That sounded interesting, perhaps not deceivingly — as I browsed the site, open tabs accumulated. Notes on some of those follow.

GovLab’s hypothesis:

When institutions open themselves to diverse participation and collaborative problem solving, they become more effective and the decisions they make are more legitimate.

I like this coupling of effectiveness and legitimacy. Another way of saying politics isn’t about policy is that governance isn’t about effectiveness, but about legitimizing power. I used to scoff at the concept of legitimacy, and my mind still boggles at arrangements passing as “legitimate” that enable mass murder, torture, and incarceration. But our arrangements are incredibly path dependent and hard to improve; now I try to charitably consider legitimacy a very useful shorthand for arrangements that have some widely understood and accepted level of effectiveness. Somewhat less charitably: at least they’ve survived, and one can do a lot worse than copying survivors. Arrangements based on open and diverse participation and collaborative problem solving are hard to legitimate: not only do they undermine what legitimacy is often really about, it is hard to see how they can work in theory or practice, relative to hierarchical command and control. Explicitly tackling effectiveness and legitimacy separately and together might be more useful than assuming one implies the other, or ignoring one of them. Refutation of the hypothesis would also be useful: many people could refocus on increasing the effectiveness and legitimacy of hierarchical, closed systems.

If We Only Knew:

What are the essential questions that if answered could help accelerate the transformation of how we solve public problems and provide for public goods?

The list of questions isn’t that impressive, but not bad either. The idea that such a list should be articulated is great. Every project ought maintain such a list of essential questions pertinent to the project’s ends!

Proposal 13 for ICANN: Provide an Adjudication Function by Establishing “Citizen” Juries (emphasis in original):

As one means to enhance accountability – through greater engagement with the global public during decision-making and through increased oversight of ICANN officials after the fact – ICANN could pilot the use of randomly assigned small public groups of individuals to whom staff and volunteer officials would be required to report over a given time period (i.e. “citizen” juries). The Panel proposes citizen juries rather than a court system, namely because these juries are lightweight, highly democratic and require limited bureaucracy. It is not to the exclusion of other proposals for adjudicatory mechanisms.

Anyone interested in random selection and juries has to be at least a little interesting, and on the right track. Or so I’ve thought since hearing about the idea of science courts and whatever my first encounter with sortition advocacy was (forgotten, but see most recent), both long ago.

Quote in a quote:

“The largest factor in predicting group intelligence was the equality of conversational turn-taking.”

What does that say about:

  • Mailing lists and similar fora used by projects and organizations, often dominated by loudmouths (to say nothing of meetings dominated by high-status talkers);
  • Mass media, including social media dominated by power law winners?

Surely it isn’t pretty for the intelligence of relevant groups. But perhaps impetus to actually implement measures often discussed when a forum gets out of control (e.g., volume or flamewars) such as automated throttling, among many other things. On the bright side, there could be lots of low hanging fruit. On the dim side, I’m surely making extrapolations (second bullet especially) unsupported by research I haven’t read!

Coordinating the Commons: Diversity & Dynamics in Open Collaborations, excerpt from a dissertation:

Learning from Wikipedia’s successes and failures can help researchers and designers understand how to support open collaborations in other domains — such as Free/Libre Open Source Software, Citizen Science, and Citizen Journalism. [...] To inquire further, I have designed a new editor peer support space, the Wikipedia Teahouse, based on the findings from my empirical studies. The Teahouse is a volunteer-driven project that provides a welcoming and engaging environment in which new editors can learn how to be productive members of the Wikipedia community, with the goal of increasing the number and diversity of newcomers who go on to make substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

Interesting for a few reasons:

  • I like the title, cf. commons coordination (though I was primarily thinking of inter-project/movement coordination);
  • OpenHatchy;
  • I like the further inquiry’s usefulness for research and the researched community;
  • Improving the effectiveness of mass collaboration is important, including for its policy effects.

Back to the press release:

Support for the Network from Google.org will be used to build technology platforms to solve problems more openly and to run agile, real-world, empirical experiments with institutional partners such as governments and NGOs to discover what can enhance collaboration and decision-making in the public interest.

I hope those technology platforms will be open to audit and improvement by the public, i.e., free/open source software. GovLab’s site being under an open license (CC-BY-SA) could be a small positive indicator (perhaps not rising to the level of an essential question for anyone, but I do wonder how release and use of “content” or “data” under an open license correlates with release and use of open source software, if there’s causality in either direction, and if there could be interventions that would usefully reinforce any such).

I’m glad that NGOs are a target. Seems it ought be easier to adopt and spread governance innovation among NGOs (and businesses) than among governments, if only because there’s more turnover. But I’m not impressed. I imagine this could be due, among other things, to my ignorance: perhaps over a reasonable time period non-state governance has improved more rapidly than state governance, or to non-state governance being even less about effectiveness and more about power than is state governance, or to governance being really unimportant for survival, thus a random walk.

Something related I’ll never get around to blogging separately: the 2 year old New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’ (summary), concerning the danger of allowing term to denote a government that publishes data, even merely politically insensitive data around service provision, rather than politically sensitive transparency and ability to demand accountability. I agree about the danger. The authors recommend maintaining distinctions between accountability, service provision, and adaptability of data. I find these distinctions aren’t often made explicit, and perhaps they shouldn’t be: it’d be a pain. But on the activist side, I think most really are pushing for politically sensitive transparency (and some focused on data about service provision might fairly argue such is often deeply political); certainly none want open data to be a means of openwashing. For one data point, I recommend the Oakland chapter of Beyond Transparency. Finally, Stop Secret Contracts seems like a new campaign entirely oriented toward politically sensitive transparency and accountability rather than data release. I hope they get beyond petitions, but I signed.

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