The Commons of Experience

Can a commons of creative and artistic works repeat the success of free and open source software, despite the differences between these forms?

Modularity and the Novel

Take the novel. The image I have of the novelist is of someone crouched over a desk alone in the light cast by a single lamp, feverishly writing into the night. There is no commons here – there cannot be, for there is no sharing, no collective.

The novel is probably the most extreme example, but it does seem to be the case that many creative efforts are the product more of individual vision than of group consensus. There are exceptions of course – such as the vast team required to produce a movie. Nonetheless, hierarchy and personal vision are hardly strangers to the film.

Yochai Benkler proposes that modularity and granularity are two essential qualities for works produced collectively in a commons1. These works must be broken up into smaller efforts performed by different people. This practically defines one of the central problems of computer science and software engineering: how to divide & conquer, i.e. how to divide a task into independent sub-tasks.

The novel isn’t modular. Unlike the hidden code from which software is built, the elements that make it up are always visible – from spelling to word choice through style to character, plot and theme. These threads weave through the whole of the work. A change to one has cascading impacts throughout. There is none of the abstraction, encapsulation, or black-boxing essential to complex software design.

A Modular Form

I can think of one form of creative endeavor that is modular (though I don’t claim it’s unique). Pen & paper roleplaying games (RPGs) are most definitely creative, but they are – of commercial necessity – modular. Bear with me: this isn’t really about games; they’re just an illustration.

Roleplaying games are collaborative enterprises of their players. They may play out like war games, but they usually tell a story, complete with plot, character, setting, theme, and so on – elements they share with the novel. The requirement for playing is typically a core rulebook, which details the essential elements for the game (particularly rules and setting information). But the contents of the book leave much of the story and play of the game unspecified. Some of these elements – such as characters and plot – are filled in by the players. Game publishers often also produce additional books further detailing rules, setting, plots, etc. These books are optional (modular); while they integrate with each other, they can generally be used in any combination.

This poses a problem for the publisher, who must integrate the work of multiple book authors in such a way that the game, setting, and so on are coherent. Hierarchical control is not necessarily sufficient or possible – especially in cases where third-party publishers provide additional materials to be integrated into a game, or when fans produce their own materials on the Web.

So RPGs seem to be nothing like the inspired, individual work of the novelist. Perhaps, unlike novels, they are not art. But they certainly are creative. What makes this possible?

RPGs do have one other feature that distinguishes them from most other forms of popular fiction: they are performed. The game in practice is a product of the players who create many of the elements of the game as a necessary part of playing. Playing an RPG is an essentially active and interactive experience. In other words, the players of the game are not just consumers – they are also producers2. This last step offers a solution to the problem of how the various modular elements of the game are integrated: they are bound together in the practice of play.

No Commodity

Wait a minute. If the players of a game are producers, what are they producing? There is no necessary physical product of their play. They are inventing stories and ideas, but these take no physical form and may be rapidly forgotten. Rather, the practice of play results not in a thing, but in an experience. It isn’t really a product at all.

Anthony McCann provides insight here. He argues that the problem with many understandings of the commons is that they see it in terms of resource management, as an alternative way to produce and consume commodities.

Here, then, is a solution to the production of creative works – commodities – in the commons. Forget about production. Concentrate on experience. In the historically anomalous mass media culture of the twentieth century, creativity became a commodity to be bought and sold. In the resurgent commons of the Internet, the outcome of creativity can revert to experience rather than a commodity. The time people spend creating can displace the time they spent consuming (as indeed the Internet draws people away from TV). That is not to say they cease consuming – consumption (of bandwidth, of software, of game materials) is certainly part of the process. But it may be a lesser part.

Blogs are a good example. What is the product of a blogger’s work? Individual blog posts seem to be things, but they are seldom sold. If a blog as a whole were printed out, it would likely make for tedious fragmented reading. In many cases, the real product of the practice blogging is the construction and maintenance of relationships and reputations, and the production of experience. It is because social software is about community not commodity that J. LeRoy (via Nancy White ) is reasonable to suggest that users of MySpace may be perfectly happy to abandon their content and switch to a different service.

One could argue with me, and say that blogs are selling advertising to readers, they enhance the value of the writer who is the real commodity, and so on. There is much truth to this; economics remains a motivating factor. The point I am trying to make, however, is that the success of creativity in a commons environment may lead to very different products from the books, CDs and films of industrial media production.

Although it may indeed produce these things, perhaps we should not look to the commons to produce novels – or commodities at all for that matter. We should look to it as a space for creative practice and experience rather than production and consumption.


1 Yochai Benkler, 2006, The Wealth of Networks, p. 101.

2 This isn’t really unique; audiences are always producers, as I have argued elsewhere.


Against Piracy

I am opposed to the draconian form copyright has taken. The political process has been taken over by corporations – organizations whose legal responsibility places the interests of society beneath those of their shareholders (as Enron and other corporate scandals have shown, often they do not manage even that). Copyright has become a threat to democracy, freedom and justice. However, I do not believe that piracy is a constructive response.

First, piracy reinforces the mass media model in which most people are comparatively passive consumers of creative goods produced by large corporations. Worse, in so far as media consumers add value to these works – by word of mouth advertising, for example, or by using them in their own creative endeavors – this only serves to increase the value of the original work, and hence the wealth and power of the copyright holders. To this extent, piracy does more harm than good.

Second, while there are many valuable creative and political uses for copyrighted material, any such work is contraband. It is tainted by the act of piracy that gives it birth; its ability to act in society is therefore typically severely circumscribed.

Third, benefiting by breaking the law is not an effective form of protest – civil disobedience requires consequences. Although the bad guys are are certainly capable of inventing excuses to rewrite the law – Alberto Gonzales’s hysterical claim that piracy funds terrorism springs to mind – there’s no need to help them.

There are exceptions of course – the mass distribution of Eyes on the Prize in protest of the corporate theft of history is one of them. But such situations are rare. Most illegal copying is less an act of “fighting the man” than of reinforcing his power. Copyfighters would better direct their efforts to expanding the commons (e.g. through the creation of share-alike Creative Commons licensed work) than distracting themselves with copying someone else’s work.

That said, I shed no tears for Sony or Disney when they are “victims” of copyright infringement.


Audience Labor

I have added Audience Labor: The Asymmetric Production of Culture to the research area of the site. I argue that much of the value in cultural works is produced by the audience, who both promote and construct new meanings from works. This is a challenge to strong copyright, which by inhibiting audience activity may actually limit the value of works (both the cultural value to the audience and the monetary value realized by culture industries).

Research into music listening preferences confirms that popularity compounds: our preference for music is strongly influenced by the preferences of others. The article points to the same two causal factors: promotion – in this case helping other people filter the good from the bad when there are too many choices, and meaning-making:

. . . a desire for compatibility with others could drive the choice, since much of the pleasure from listening to music and reading books stems from discussing them with friends.

Chris Anderson also wrote recently about the declining profitability of music and cinema blockbusters. I wonder if it relates to a pattern suggested by Sinha & Raghavendra. They suggest that adults are more influenced by advertising, while in the case of children it is the opinions of friends that matter more. Hopefully the power of advertising is weakening as people find more ways to communicate and share with each other (see Doc Searls’ post on the topic).


The Abundance of Talent

Is talent scarce or abundant? Jon Udell suggests that the question is fundamental to the argument over DRM: if talent is scarce, if it will always express itself, then we must protect what we have rather than encouraging creativity. I will explain why I believe, as does Jon, that talent is more abundant than it appears.

Jon excerpts a (to my mind) incendiary passage from Barry Diller:

There’s not that much talent in the world, and talent almost always outs. There’s very few people, in very few closets, that are really talented and can’t find their way out. Somehow they get out.

Jon is willing to allow that this might be the case. I am not. For a start, the very definition of talent depends on the society: talent in one society may be considered eccentricity or irrelevance in another. A given society will recognize one talent and ignore others.

Furthermore, there are numerous examples of variation in the recognition of talent between different societies, suggesting that some are or were more open to producing or recognizing certain kinds of talents:

  • America produces lots of movie stars, and most of those are from the United States – a country with only 5% of the world’s population. How come there aren’t more stars from China, India, or Africa? Are Americans more talented?
  • Nineteenth century America was not a great producer of culture (e.g. of literature, painting, poetry, or philosophy), despite a fair sized population. Ireland, on the other hand, has produced more than its fair share of writers and poets.
  • Women have been and continue to be under-represented in many fields, from software to A-list bloggers. Are men inherently more talented at blogging?
  • Ancient Athens had a small population, yet produced a tremendous number of talented people in just a couple of generations.
  • Through history there have been places in which talent was concentrated, from theater in Weimar Berlin and Shakespeare’s London to art in Paris and renaissance Florence1. Some of this can be explained through the migration of talented people, but this isn’t sufficient in the case of Florence or London.

Obviously, different people have different opportunities in life – e.g. in terms of education, socialization, and wealth2. But how do we draw the line between the production of talent and its recognition? If we can, is it likely that societies with unequal access to such resources (which is to say all societies) would provide equal opportunities for recognition? Will talent always out?

No. Talent is a product of both nature and nurture. Societies encourage some talents and suppress others; they recognize some people and ignore others. There is no reason whatever to think that contemporary societies in general, or America (which I assume is Diller’s object) are special. To do otherwise is to suggest that talent and its recognition are natural phenomena beyond human control.

Is talent scarce? No, not as much as it appears. Is it abundant? I don’t know, but the examples above – Athens, London, Paris, Florence – suggest that it is. These are places in which extraordinary talents made themselves known. Even if talent is defined more broadly, to encompass more artists and creators, the argument remains the same. Nor does it matter if talent is defined differently by a society with different tastes and values from our own.

Jon has made an insightful connection between talent scarcity and arguments for DRM. But I don’t think it addresses the real reasons for DRM. This restrictive technology isn’t about economic efficiency (the maximization of creativity and culture), but about power. False arguments, like the scarcity and inevitable expression of talent, need to be stripped away to expose the real agenda of those who would rule culture.


1 I drew these example cities from Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, which examines the context of cities which experience golden ages of creativity or innovation.

2 I am not claiming that there is a direct relationship between wealth (or education etc.) and talent. Peter Hall’s theory of cultural golden ages connects them to conflicts within society, and suggests that creative geniuses are often outsiders on the edge of society. Too much wealth could be counter-productive, but no less a factor for that.


Web Patronage for Artists

I’m closely watching an experiment by Dennis Detwiller. He is a game designer, writer, and artist who is trying to fund his work by ransoming it to his fans. I am interested for two reasons: First, I would like to see a successful business model which pays artists but allows their work to be shared without excessive technological or copyright encumberances. Second, I’m a fan of Dennis’s work and of the style of game he writes for (Call of Cthulhu and similar pen & paper role-playing games).

The way the ransom works is this: Dennis proposes something he’d like to write and sets a price and a deadline. Then people interested in his project pledge money towards the project. If enough money is pledged before the deadline, Dennis is paid and proceeds with his writing1. Once he’s done, he releases his work for free to the world (in digital form). It can then be copied freely by anyone for non-commercial use2. If the ransom is not met, no-one pays any money (a third-party system collects pledges and returns the money if the ransom fails).

The economics are very attractive. A discussion on his blog compares the expense of paying an author and publishing a book – at a cost of about $30,000 – with the $750 Dennis asked for another piece of work he released this way. Imagine the benefits: Artists and writers would be much more free to direct their own work. Meanwhile, the world would benefit from creative work which, while not economic at, say, $30,000 is economic at $2,000. That $28,000 difference really is money saved, so there’s money left over to pay for more work by creative types.

Dennis is in a good position: while the audience (it’s not a market) he is addressing is small (Call of Cthulhu role-playing gamers), it is dedicated, and his past work on some of the best books ever published for a role-playing game has earned him a strong reputation3. A small community is probably a good thing, because the members of the community know if they don’t participate there aren’t that many people who will. Furthermore, he is extending his previous work; since no-one else has the rights to it, the audience is essentially captive.

I think the sense of participation is a key dynamic. Peer-to-peer networks like Napster have shown clearly that people like to share. Knowing that I am, in a sense, sharing when I give my $10 only increases my incentive. If this model is to succeed, I think it needs to build on that, perhaps by mentioning patrons by name (perhaps once they have donated a certain overall sum) so they can take pride in their participation.

I recently had a discussion with someone about open source and the economics of abundance. She suggested that although open source programmers give their work away, this increases their reputation. They are then able to trade on that reputation in order to increase their earning potential. In other words, behind the sharing there is often an economic motive.

She has a good point, but I would turn the argument around: reputation and status are at the root of much economic behavior, from fancy cars to big houses and nice clothes. It doesn’t seem so fanciful for our society to shift some of that spending from consumption to patronage, adapting the historical model applied to classical music and Renaissance art. (It is easy to be cynical: conspicuous consumption is unattractive, and conspicuous patronage could be the same. But the act of generosity could just as easily turn into true generosity, saving pollution and resources regardless.)

After pledging my $10, I was thrilled to see Dennis’s latest effort succeed. Even that measly sum gave me a feeling of responsibility for the effort; I would have been sorely tempted to give more if it were necessary for success. Dennis, of course, is most deserving of all. I can barely wait to read the result.


1 This kind of system has been tried before, but this is the first time I’ve payed much attention – much less donated. (I seem to remember a similar attempt by Stephen King in the 1990s. In that case, there was insufficient interest and King deemed the effort a failure.)

2 This is obviously not a precise description of his copyright conditions; if you’re interested, check out his site.

3 He was one of the designers responsible for the famous Delta Green supplement by Pagan Publishing.


Perfect Copies Produce Diversity

The threat of digital copying is not that it produces perfect duplicates, but that it produces heterogeneous diversity. It is not a sequel to the press, but a divergence from it.

That is one of the notes I made while reading Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy1, in response to this claim:

. . . homogeneity is quite incompatible with electronic culture. We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century.

(Of course, when he talks about “electronic culture” he is talking about television and radio, not DVDs and the Internet2.)

It is not obvious that this should be the impact of digital media. The printing press supplanted handwritten manuscripts, which were anything but uniform. In the middle ages, for example, textbooks were class notes taken by students. But printed books are homogeneous: McLuhan calls them the first mass-produced commodities, and argues that the influence of their uniformity extended throughout society. Why would digital media — with its perfect copies — be any different?

But they are. The uniform sequence of songs on an album gives way to the random selection of the iPod Shuffle. We rip mix and burn. Although much of this is because of the affordability and ease-of-use of the tools, my point is about the inherent perfection of digital copies.

An analog copy is always inferior to a more perfect — hence more authoritative — original. Photographs of a painting increase the value of the original, while remaining relatively worthless themselves. The quality and value of a master is greater than of any subsequent derivative work, even more than distributed copies of that derivative. Because analog is imperfect, the goal of duplication is fidelity, and the result is hierarchy and uniformity. Even the echo of feudalism in the words — fidelity, master — reveals the bias.

Digital technology is different: every copy is a master because every copy is perfect. Derivative works are at no disadvantage. A technology which allows perfect uniformity instead promotes endless experimentation and innovation3.

This diversity, of course, is one of the targets of schemes from the broadcast flag to copyright and DRM. If we accept their control, we must also accept the passive uniformity that goes with them.


1 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1962, p. 165.

2 McLuhan goes into more detail about electric media in Understanding Media, which I have not yet read.

3 Imagine if software were analog: Microsoft’s greatest treasure would be the master copy of Windows; open source would be a hopeless disaster.


Libertarian Communists

There were three interesting threads on Slashdot today – one about gay rights, one about open source, and one about PR – which I think capture how the politics of real people, in this case hackers, so often fails to fit in the conventional categories of left and right.

The majority viewpoints in Slashdot are American, and come with a very American dose of laissez-faire anti-government sentiment and an intense aversion to socialism. Yet on social issues the tone is often progressive, as in this discussion of gay rights. I am conducting a study of gay marriage in blogs, and I’ve found the same thing: in my sample, those in favor outnumber those against 3 to 1.

Now forget about merely progressive politics, let’s talk about Communism. Here’s what lionheart1327 had to say about open source:

Open source, and the volunteer way in which it is done, is basically the utopian communism that the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc. were striving to get to, but fucked up. Real communism is not people being forced to be “equal”. It is the unselfish sharing of everything, and volunteering your time and effort for the greater good. . . . maybe Bill Gates is right, and Linux is communist? Well, if you take away the prejudice against the “C” word caused by decades of propoganda, maybe thats actually a Good Thing?

This was given a high rating of “5, Interesting” by readers, as was this response by Analogy Man:

Then there is that other ‘C’ word…Christian. . . . giving your fellow man your time, energy and expertise over the internet is a Christian thing to do. Be an open source contributor! Be a Christian Communists.

Finally, I highly an article by Paul Graham, in which he describes how PR agencies plant stories in the media. He goes on to suggest that business as usual is under threat from bloggers, who lack the phony tone of PR copy. He quotes a friend in the business about struggling newspapers: “They think the decline is cyclic. Actually it’s structural.”

He too seems to be suggesting that information wants to be free. Yet this is someone who, in Hackers and Painters??1??, that technology acts as a lever to increase the productive capacity of individuals, so the increased variation in wealth in rich countries is a good sign. Hardly the words of a communist.


1 “Mind the Gap”, O’Reilly, 2004, 109-120.


Use It or Lose It

Many people concerned about the direction technology is taking us have chosen to disengage from it. Some do it because they are technophobes, humanists or romantics. Some do it simply because they doubt they can make a difference. Some do it because they disbelieve the hype of a better future. Maybe they are right. But they are like citizens who oppose the government but choose not to vote. The people who control technology are the people who use it. They set its direction; they set its priorities. If people of good conscience do not take a role, the future will be bleak.

The worst-case scenario of surveillance, draconian copyright laws, and digital rights management is grim indeed. It depicts a world in which technology is utterly in the power of multinationals and governments. Televisions only display approved content to approved viewers. Video recorders automatically delete programs when they are expired, censored, or simply not approved. Computers refuse to run software which has not been vetted by business and government; alternatives cease to exist. Devices spy on their owners, reporting viewing, reading, and listening habits to corporate and government intelligence agencies. Journalism becomes a walled profession: only it’s practioners have the technology which can publish, record, or film content which can be distributed to the public. Consumer technology is crippled, and the networks will not carry material produced by those who are not accredited.

Could this really happen? I want to doubt it. But then, I thought the region coding on DVD players (which prevents a Japanese DVD, say, from playing on a U.S. Player) would not survive the market, yet they did. I never upgraded from Windows 2000 to Windows XP because of software activation, which ties the software forever to the computer it is first installed on. I thought consumers would not stand for it. They barely noticed.

Look at history: Lawrence Lessig describes how the radio industry set FM back decades. In the first part of the 20th century, General Motors bought out and tore up street car systems across North America. Only a handful of cities hung onto a few lines; only now are we starting to rebuild our mass transit. We have destroyed fish stocks worldwide even as those who depended on them knew what was happening.

So maybe it could happen. The way things are going, some of it probably will. We need to fight as citizens, using our right to vote. We need to fight as human beings, exercising our values. And we need to fight as participants who seize the tools and use them for what we want to use them for. If we are not using the technology, we will not notice when we lose the option. When it inevitably becomes part of our lives, it will embody values which are not ours; its form will have been set and we will have little choice in the matter. But if we use the tools, if the majority of computers are used by people for their own benefit, it will bend to our will. When someone tries to take that away, we will notice, and we will not stand for the loss of our freedom. Every person who writes a blog, makes an independent film, or distributes their own music on the Internet is taking control. Every person who reads that blog, or watches that film or listens to that music makes it a little bit harder for the grim future to happen.

Some are already engaged. To everyone else, I say: use it or lose it.


Open Source, Piracy, and Networks

Many people who believe current copyright laws are too strong have suggested that sharing benefits publishers. A number of artists agree, but publishers remain unconvinced. They continue to push for draconian legislation and digital rights management which interfere with our ability to use the content we pay for. Ken Camp argues that this will ultimately fail: content is not king, “content is a commodity . . . we are the value.” His argument is very similar to Steven Weber’s insight in The Success of Open Source1.

What Weber says is this. Most economic theory is based on excludability and scarcity. Most goods are both excludable (you can stop someone else from using them – your car, for example, when you lock it) and rival (there is a limit to them, so the more I have the less someone else can have). Software is different: it is both non-excludable and non-rival. If I have a piece software, I can give it to you without incurring any cost or disadvantage to myself. As a result, all sorts of economic mechanisms, such as supply and demand, break down.

One such mechanism is the problem of free-riders – people who take from a common pool without putting anything in. A good example is fishing: it is in the collective interest that we not overfish the oceans. But it is in the individual interests of fishermen to free-ride. If I take a few extra fish I’ll make more money. Of course, it’s in every other fisherman’s interests to do the same. And so we overfish, stocks collapse, and everybody loses.

For most goods, free-riders would be a serious problem. Open Source seems to suffer from more than it’s share. In fact, we are all free riders – you, me, just about anyone who uses a computer. I use Mozilla, Open Office, my mail is sent through an SMTP server. And yet, Open Source doesn’t even discourage free-riding (in other contexts called piracy). Why not?

The first part of the explanation is obvious: software is non-rival and non-excludable; you can’t “overfish” software. But Weber goes one step further. He says that while free-riding is a problem for most goods, for software it can actually be a benefit. Open Source developers allow free-riders to use their software because it is in their own interest.

The key is positive network externalities. Every additional copy – even if made by a free-rider – increases the value of all the other copies. This is the reason for Windows’ dominance. Windows runs on close to ninety percent of the world’s desktops. Why? Because most software is written for Windows. Why is most software written for Windows? Because Windows runs on most of the world’s desktops.

Ken explains how people using content – like music, films, and books – increase its value:

When we make it our own, we add value with our joke, our quotes, and even with our getting it wrong. We are the value. We’re the value that makes LOTR the blockbuster. We’re the value that makes that hit song #1. . . . The Internet isnt’ a delivery mechanism for content. The Internet is a collaboration mechansim for us in the value chain. We are not consumers. Consumers eat the steak from the market at dinner and the steak is no more. We’re not a market. We’re not a target audience. We’re the top of the value chain. We are the value-add.

Ken is talking about positive network externalities. He’s talking about how even free-riders can increase the value of content. I hope he’s right. I hope Weber’s right. Then everybody wins.


1 Harvard University Press, 2004.


Web Copyright & Education

The Canadian government is proposing that educational intitutions pay a fee in order to use web materials which are publicly available. According to the The Globe & Mail, Schools would “pay a fee to a copyright collective, an organization representing creators of websites, to access material that is currently free.” So if you create content for the web, and a school in Canada uses it, then the school pays money to a third-party organization.

This sounds an awful lot like government-sponsored piracy to me. Worse, it is a subsidy to larger publishers, which in turn gives them a competitive advantage versus smaller companies which will be providing much of the material which is the basis for the fee. In short: you might face competition from a company financed in part by fees charged to schools to access your work.

It’s absurd – if a company places information on the web, then it knows that that content is freely available and people will view it without paying. This is extraordinary proposal is another precedent attempting enclosure of the public domain.

Needless to say, the educators themselves are not impressed.

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