Vol. 12, No. 2,856W - The American Reporter - March 18, 2006


The American Reporter
April 10, 1995 - April 10, 2005
10 Years Of Service

Andy Oram Reports
OPEN SOURCE: ARE THEY KILLING THE COMMONS? by Andy Oram

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent
Cambridge, Mass.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - The "commons" is the part of the economy that doesn't have a business plan yet.

Once somebody can figure out how to turn a social trend into a money-making operation, they can raise capital, get a product on the shelves, and collect revenue. A business plan certainly isn't child's play, but at least there's a process in place for doing one.

It's during that breathless span of time before the business plan takes shape - a month, a year, a decade - that critical time when a notion is incubating in society and no one knows quite what to make of it, when we need the commons.

Traditionally, a commons was a grassy area in the center of town where everyone could graze their animals. In modern times, the notion of a commons has been applied to anything that is available to all comers without restriction. In particular, sociologists consider ideas, cultural artifacts, and other intellectual contributions to become part of our commons.

Many people already appreciate the commons. But those who demand that ideas have business plans in order to be usable should ponder the first sentence of this article to see a hard-headed justification for the importance of the intellectual commons.

How this concept fits in with free software, also known as open source software, will be explored in this article. Then I will touch on some ways business imperatives, imprudently pursued, can weaken the commons, that fertile field from which the most promising future businesses will emerge.

Open source software, briefly, is software distributed in the form of its original source code, which is the form in which the programmer writes it. Thanks to permissive licensing, everyone who has access to computer equipment potentially has access to the software, and anyone who chooses to access the software can do whatever he or she wants with it, as fully capable as the original creator.

Open source software is often distributed quite early in its life, before it's fully debugged or highly functional. While a core of developers usually does most of the work, a cast of thousands potentially contributes to the software by examining the source code and submitting bug fixes. The end result, for popular projects, is more robust, more highly functional, and more secure than closed software.

For closed software - also called proprietary software - the feature set must achieve a certain size before it's worth putting together a sales program, and a degree of business savvy is required to market the software effectively. Many programmers earn a modest sum with small, niche programs, but there's always some effort involved in commercializing the software.

This is not to say that open source becomes irrelevant when software can support a business plan; the two can definitely coexist, as robust activity in the open source space by IBM and other companies proves. But a special charm hangs over free software created by inspired individuals and released into the wild.

Open source lowers barriers to the creation and distribution of software. It therefore allows innovation in that broad space between inventions that have purely personal value and inventions that can support a business plan.

Some observers claim that open source software simply imitates proprietary vendor offerings - that innovation takes place only in proprietary software. This view demonstrates a poor understanding of programming history. What about the stored digital computer program, the Internet, all-purpose scripting languages, the World Wide Web, online chat, and peer-to-peer file sharing? These fundamental technologies, used daily by millions of people, were open source innovations.

Proprietary vendors are good at exploiting an idea that incrementally improves the user's experience or productivity. And some historic, ground-breaking technologies certainly came out of corporations: the compiler and the graphical user interface are two examples. But many world-shaking breakthroughs in communication and personal empowerment occur on a level on which proprietary vendors cannot build a business model. The proprietary products must follow, not lead, open source.

And open source can be commercial too. Commercializing such software is good for open source, good for business, and good for the public. Vendors can take snapshots of major open source projects and productize them so they can be easily and safely used by large, cautious organizations that value reliability.

But no matter how much money is poured into open source projects by vendors and other large organizations, the driving force that creates value comes from the intrepid innovators that flock to these projects. They exist both within and outside the established organizations, and they do not only coding but testing, training, documentation, and advocacy.

Not everything has to be open source. One of the most supple implementations of open source, the Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org) allows many gradations between openness and control.

What else can we learn about the commons by seeing it as the source of innovation outside a business plan? Indeed, in this sense the commons keeps bubbling up over and over, starting from our earliest knowledge of human communities.

Art (which includes music, poetry, dance, and many other forms of expression) is a commons. For a long time people created it to satisfy personal or religious impulses. A few figured out how to make money at it, but the love of money does not drive art.

Language is a commons. Those who learn to shape it with delight or cunning can make a living at it, but the vast majority of language use is unremunerated.

The constant factor in the commons of art and language is that each addition tends to build on what others have done. People view art that inspires them, listen to music that moves them, and read texts that persuade them before they produce their own creations. Their new works invariably refer to ideas in the earlier ones. When you find a work that is startling and seemingly new - by James Joyce or Schoenberg, for instance - it simply means the references are more cleverly hidden and require more thoughtful elucidation.

Could our intellectual heritage suffer a "tragedy of the commons," as described by Garrett Hardin when he introduced that term in 1968? What Hardin described was a degradation or exhaustion of the commons through overuse. Clearly, there can be no tragedy of the intellectual commons in this sense, because the commons of ideas provides enough for every taker. Rather, two different tragedies threaten it.

The threat most resembling the classic tragedy is a fencing off of the commons, a predatory and premature division of its goods among private owners. This indeed can starve the commons. The trend worries librarians, researchers, creative artists, and others responsible for tending the commons of ideas.

The creator of a new work should not be allowed to monetize it completely, because it owes its existence to the commons and contains part of that commons. The new work is a shared achievement - shared between the individual who added his or her personal touch and the community in which it arose - so both sides must respect each other. This means the public must allow the creator a fair reward, and the creator must allow a certain amount of reuse by the public. Copyright is meant to be a short-term monopoly to encourage new works, and was recognized as such by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations.

Fencing off the commons has proceeded along several lines, which have been reported in the press but scarcely considered by the wider public.

  • The Supreme Court ruling on June 27 that allowed movie and music studios to sue the makers of file-sharing software is minor step in the slow devaluation of the commons. The ruling creates new tools making it easier for someone with a business plan to trample down the commons when it conflicts with the business plan. Innovators, including those with no resources for court challenges, must worry that they may be sued for the results of experiments they offer to the community. The ruling therefore endorses the past at the expense of the potential.
  • Extensions of copyright to periods of time way past the current historical era are violations of the commons, and directly contrary to the tradition recognized by Adam Smith. The most recent extension by the U.S. Congress keeps works under copyright until 70 years after the author's death. In upholding the law, the courts pointed out that the law adheres to the international Berne Convention - which simply spreads the shame more widely.
  • Restrictions on people making their own copies of material they've bought, or experiencing it outside particular times and places, are violations of the commons. But music and movie makers routinely put such limits on downloaded material, in a losing battle against unauthorized sharing. A whole field of computing has grown up around digital rights management, which keeps people from making full use of copyrighted material.
  • Invocations of trademarks or trade secrets to squelch free speech are violations of the commons. One blatant example is the attempts by the manufacturers of software "child protection" filters to keep critics from using information about them to prove how poorly they operate.
  • Explicit censorship is a violation of the commons. China is the focus of current news about censorship, but it goes on in many places and distorts the entire environment for information sharing.

The fencing off of the commons has divided industries, with different sides taken by different creative artists, software makers, publishers, and others.

But what movie and music studios, along with software companies, newspapers, and many publishers, worry about most is another threat: that the commons will swallow up everything else. Specifically, they claim that consumers will seek to get everything for free, and thus undermine their own self-interest by shredding the incentives for artists and programmers to create new, independent works of value.

This threat should not be seen as quite so tragic as the content vendors make it out to be, because payment regimes for art and information have changed drastically at many turning points over the centuries. The simple model whereby each individual pays for a copy or a performance has worked for many artists, but not all. Changes brought about by digital technology will create new winners and losers.

The early radio broadcasters were non-profits: in other words, radio started out as part of the commons. Under the pressures of corporations and the Federal Communications Commission, radio quickly developed a business plan. Interestingly enough, however, broadcasts remained free of charge. The pay-per-copy or pay-per-performance model was replaced by advertising support. In addition, due to the basic physics of radio - each station can cover only a few thousand square meters - a show can be recorded and syndicated for more income. Still, it's hard to grasp now that for many years the three U.S. television networks carried on a 1950's-style hysteria campaign against proposals for "pay TV."

In passing, it's worth noting that traditional notions about pay-per-use are making it hard to get medicines to AIDS patients and other desperately sick people in developing nations. WTO and U.S. rules, in trying to ensure that the rewards for developing drugs are borne by individual patients, end up depriving millions of people of medical care while contributing hardly anything to company profits.

New media, which will probably use digital networks and be more interactive, will present new payment opportunities. They may well build on the open source movement. We should celebrate the existence of open source, and defend the commons in every area of innovation as our guarantee of innovation.

Andy Oram is a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, an editor of books on open source topics at O'Reilly Media, and Webmaster of The American Reporter.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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