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Remix (part 6)

May 20, 2009

Wow, 41 hits yesterday, a good bump up from the 12-16 I’ve been getting.  No link-in source, so it’s a mystery where they came from.  Also, someone is actually going back and reading the old posts (Hi there! Thank you!), so I guess it’s time to clean the proverbial attic and fix the unintentionally tiny type in the old posts (legacy of the last theme as well as my forgetting that I keep my text size on “larger” all the time).

Before I continue with the review of Remix, I had to link to this, a sort of coda to my post on the Disorderly March of my life, and the Google/Marissa Mayer idea that “good students are good at all things” and that academic metrics = superior talents.  Walter Kirn wrote an article for The Atlantic a few years ago, which has just been repurposed into a book, but the nut of his argument can be found here, that his Ivy League education and all that led up to it was of value not in terms of what he learned but only in how it taught him to manipulate systems:

My education, I realized, was not just mine but that of millions of us who’d been schooled in roughly the same period and under the same philosophical assumptions. The nemesis we’d confronted, our common adversary, was an impoverished definition of human intelligence itself—one that inevitably, I came to think, molded and deformed our spirits. To young people born under the weird planet of the SAT (the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and raised on the pseudo-scientific notion that mental worth can be ranked in cold "percentiles," intelligence was equated with agility, with raw acuity. It was an empty vessel, void of content and void of passion, too. It represented the ability to shine at whatever task was put before one, but not the urge to master any one task, let alone because one loved that task. As such, it produced a certain sort of person of which I was a typical specimen: the cultural opportunist, the mental contortionist, able to rise to almost every challenge placed before him at school or work except, perhaps, to the challenge of real self-knowledge.

Back to the book:

Lessig argues that commercial and sharing economies around the same goods can co-exist, with which I agree, but I’m not sure his example holds up:

Work successfully licensed in a commercial economy can also be freely available in a sharing economy. If this weren’t true, then there would be no commercial record industry at all: despite the war on file sharing, practically every bit of commercially available music is also available illegally on p2p networks…Yet despite this massive sharing, according to the recording industry’s own statistics, sales of music have declined by 21 percent. If parallel economies were not possible, that 21 percent would be 100 percent.

The numbers alone don’t tell a story. At what rate has that decline occurred, compared with the rate of increase in p2p sharing? If the decline is occurring exponentially, is there a “tipping point” at which more music will be shared than purchased? Is the commercial music economy sustainable when sales decline by 30 or 40 percent? (Yes, on a micro level, but we would almost certainly see Big Music crumble like the Capitol Records building in the new Terminator movie.) I agree with the first sentence; Cory Doctorow has made decent sales on his books despite simultaneously giving them away as ebooks in what Lessig calls “voluntary parallel economies.” But the 21 percent figure for music isn’t an end point – more a sign of things to come.

All the same, it occurred to me that “sharing” has in fact always been part of the entertainment industry – without the plethora of free review copies the industry presses on journalists and celebrities and tastemakers and DJs and “lucky winners” of radio contests and listening party attendees (all stamped with “not for resale” with holes punched in the case or the booklet to ensure they can’t be resold retail), without the free t-shirts and posters and mugs and every other tie-in item assiduously controlled under license, they would never have be able to promote their paid content. So by their own actions, the industry had shown that free content is and always has been essential to promoting paid content.

Most people, Lessig argues, have a mental block against giving their work away.

Indeed, our intellectual biases about concepts like property lead us almost naturally to believe that the best strategy to produce wealth is to maximize control over the assets we have, including (and most important here) intellectual property assets.

To do that we must prevent “spillovers,” events in which “a resource…is made available to entities that didn’t contribute to its production.” Lessig argues that “historically, spillovers have produced great value to society,” although his only example is the Internet, a bit shaky as example since it came out of publicly funded work (DARPA in the US and CERN abroad, although admitted Tim Berners-Lee had the opportunity to monetize his creation of the World Wide Web). I’d argue that most spillovers are more like the Human Genome Project, in which public funds enable private economics (i.e. the reveal of the genome enables biotech companies to work on new tests and cures), while preventing private concerns from monopolizing revolutionary scientific information – see “Public versus private approaches” in the Wikipedia article linked above on how Craig Venter attempted to patent the building blocks of human life.

Still, innovation is moving out of both the private/corporate and public/government spheres, as the open source software movement proves. Users singly and together modify open source software, tinkering and improving its security and stability until (here come the Gladwellisms, sorry) early adopters and lead users within organizations begin to lobby for a change from paid software to “free” (free in quotes as there are various support costs, the bread and butter of its developers), and a tipping point is reached at which the cost/benefit ratio comes down on the side of open source, as is happening in environments from West Point to French police departments.

Whereas in a pure sharing economy, where money is either not wanted or actively spurned, in a hybrid economy the rules about who gets what are fuzzier. YouTube is allowing posters to profit from ads on their most popular videos (an example strangely missing from the book), and as a general rule, to succeed “hybrids will try to signal their virtue, or the fairness of the exchange they offer” (i.e., “Don’t Be Evil”) to keep their content production base happily “spilling.” Corporate transparency and openness, a light hand in the hot-button realms of copy protection and IP litigation, and lots of free content made readily available keep the company “cool” enough to reassure the base that they’re not suckers.

Converting from shared to hybrid is tricky, as the assumptions of the contributor base are upended when their labor of love is monetized by someone else, as happened with CDDB and IMDB. The developers profited financially, the contributors did not, leaving a bad taste and negative image of both databases in the public mind. There’s also the danger of enthusiasts becoming “digital sharecroppers” in Lessig’s term, offered the chance to remix and build upon privately controlled content, but required to surrender all their rights to the derivative work to the original copyright holder, as is the case in the Star Wars world.

The conflict here is deeper than the Internet. It will get resolved in the hybrid economy only when each economy— the commercial and the sharing— validates the other. If those within a sharing economy hate commerce— if they’re disgusted with the idea of anyone profiting, anywhere— then the prospects for healthy hybrids are not good. Likewise, if those within the commercial economy ignore the ethic of sharing— if they treat members of the sharing economy like customers, or kids— then the prospects for a healthy hybrid are not good either.

Lessig absolutely nails it when he delineates the difference between software and other forms of expression, pace those who want to treat all creativity the same. It’s rational to keep software perpetually open, since putting an iteration of Apache or Linux under a “private label” means you’re immediately forking away from the innovations in the commons and therefore doing double work keeping up with those innovations in your private label edition. He, and Brian Behlendorf, are worth quoting at length here, because it’s similar to my own arguments and because there are few people in the public debate making these points (can’t indent within indents to match the original, so I’m using quotes):

But that story [avoiding loss by forking] hangs upon the physical characteristics of complex coding projects. Those same characteristics don’t exist with, say, a song or a novel. Whatever incentive there may be to stay in the commons with complex, collaborative goods, that same incentive doesn’t carry over automatically to all creative works. For these works, nothing more than a norm will support keeping the resource open. And whether, or how, that norm survives is not, to me at least, clear.

It is clear to me, however, that we must avoid a kind of intellectual imperialism. We must be open to the differences in cultural goods— software versus movies; music versus scientific articles. The norms that support free production in one are not necessarily the norms that support free production in the other. As Brian Behlendorf, a cofounder of the Apache project, puts it,

“I don’t know if there is one single, social contract amongst cultural works. I think it’s different for DJs and electronic music than it is for folk music or even different types of dance music. [For example, the] R & B community has appropriated a lot of tracks and a lot of song samples yet probably would fight fiercely with the RIAA against downloading of their work and such.”

He points to another important difference as well:

“A lot of software is, by its nature, a team effort with lots of iterations over time. A lot of cultural media— songs or plays or movies— are, if they have teams, much smaller teams where they tend to be the vision of one or two people. And they arrive at a finished body of work or mostly finished work and then it’s kind of put in a time capsule. . . . [M]aybe it’s this evolutionary nature of software, the fact that contributors come and go over time and that, sure, you have certain versions that are well known and such, but it’s not like movies where there’s a finished work that makes its way to the theater and people pay money to go see it.”

We need to understand these differences to envision the lines communities will draw.

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