Non digital commons a lot more complicated than Free Software


In September 2010 I went to the Open World Forum to present some first results of my research about local impacts of Open Data. The Forum was an interesting and varied event, that gave space to very interesting talks, keynotes and comments about freedom, education and gender diversity in software. Another great moment for me was the contribution to the final panel by John Wilbanks, Vice-President for Science Creative Commons.

Wilbanks explained very well that, in a world that is undoubtedly plagued by copyright abuse from corporations, the Free Software and Creative Commons movements have been able to achieve good results just because copyright exists, is more or less the same worldwide AND only cares about immaterial objects. But trying to port the same ideals and methods to manufacturing and other fields, said Wilbanks, is much more problematic and may even backfire in some cases. I found what Wilbanks said very interesting, so I asked him to elaborate on the subject. Here are his answers (italic is mine), which I think are good food for thought for anybody interested in the Commons and in a more open society.

Stop: I would like to read more on this theme. Have you or anybody else written something about it?

Wilbanks: I am actually working on a book on this very topic. I don’t know a lot of materials have been written on the idea - most of the work is point by point, so there is a lot of work on the difficulties of a patent commons, on biomaterials sharing, open hardware, each as separate domains, but not much that stitches it all together (which is why i’m working on on a book!).

Stop: May you mention an example of “Open Source”-like project in fields different from software that didn’t had the same success?

Wilbanks: If you go to the list of publications at and read the first paper linked under 2007, you can get a sense of what the ideals were in creating an “open source biology” project - but that project hasn’t hit the same scale as open source software, in part because the legal agreements simply didn’t have the same impact in a patent context that they have in a copyrights context.

Stop: Why does this happen?

Wilbanks: Copyrights enable from a rights perspective, while patents exclude. Copyrights are relatively international while patents are nationally defined. Very few people have the capacity to practice a complex technology, while many have the capacity to take and share a photo, edit Wikipedia, or write code (even though the vast majority of people do none of those things, the math works out because of the sheer number of people theoretically capable of doing them).

Stop: Since I’m currently working on it and, personally, I even wonder sometimes if people are ready for Open Data and Government, I’m also interested in your opinion about the Open Data trend. Are Open Data in an easier or harder situation than Open Source Software?

Wilbanks: Data is in a somewhat similar spot but with more technology issues to solve. It is highly regulated, but in a deeply fragmented way - copyrights, database rights, privacy regimes, technology, provenance and preservation and on and on. Might be more susceptible to commons emergence if we get the preconditions right, and right now.

Stop: Let’s now talk about physical products, like Open Source Hardware.

Wilbanks: For intermediate stuff like open source hardware, it’s interesting. This is where safety comes in. It’s one thing to make my own LEDs, but another thing to make my own car or pharmaceuticals.

The complexity and power of modern manufacturing systems is bringing the capacity for user-driven innovation to precisely these sorts of knowledge products, but we don’t have the sort of checks and balances in these products that we have in software.

Stop: What do you mean, exactly?

Wilbanks: Software source code gets checked into repositories, and if it doesn’t run, it gets edited and re-compiled (if there are enough interested coders!). We haven’t yet developed the social systems around more complex, non digital products, although the Open Hardware folks are well on their way - check out Adafruit for an example of a robust hacker community, one that exists in full bloom, without a lot of stress over Intellectual Property.

Stop: Which obstacles do you see in these field?

Wilbanks: We need to encourage these communities to develop, because they are the best way to encode good knowledge into products. But when we are talking about cars and pharmaceuticals, we have safety regulations for a reason, at least in theory. User-driven creation of those kinds of products is going to trigger some antibodies in the system, and we have to be ready for that with plausible explanations, and, most important, robust communities of users.

This isn’t to say that the emergence of commons in these spaces isn’t going to happen, just that it might be a lot more complicated than it’s been so far.

Stop: After the Open World Forum I attended the International Commons Conference in Berlin, where one of the recurring themes was just the cultural gap between digital and traditional commoners, so I am even happier now than I would have been last month of this talk with you, and I am sure that it will contribute to that discussion. Thanks!

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