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The Commons Doesn't Have a Business Plan

by Andy Oram
07/28/2005

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 moneymaking operation, he or she 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.

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. Understanding the commons is more important than ever.

Traditionally, a commons was a grassy area in the center of town where everyone could graze their animals. In modern times, people have applied the notion of a "commons" to anything that is available to all comers without restriction. In particular, sociologists consider ideas, cultural artifacts, and other intellectual contributions to have 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 hardheaded justification for the importance of the intellectual commons.

Related Reading

Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing
By Andrew M. St. Laurent

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

Briefly, open source software is software distributed in the form of its original source code, which is the form the programmer writes it in. Thanks to permissive licensing, everyone who has access to a computer potentially has access to the software, and anyone who chooses to access the software can change and adapt it just as easily as the original creator can.

Open source software often benefits from community development. 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 often 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 marketing the software effectively requires a degree of business savvy. Many programmers earn a modest sum with small, niche programs, but there's always some effort involved in commercializing the software.

That 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 Web, online chat, and peer-to-peer file sharing? Those 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. Some historic, groundbreaking 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 at which proprietary vendors cannot build a business model. The proprietary products must follow, not lead, open source.

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 turn them into products that can be easily and safely used by large, cautious organizations that value reliability.

But no matter how much money vendors and other large organizations pour into open source projects, 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 also testing, training, documentation, and advocacy.

Not everything has to be open source. One of the most supple implementations of open source, the Creative Commons, allows many gradations between openness and control.

What else is there to 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 goes 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 a short-term monopoly meant to encourage new works, and it 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 fencing off of the commons has divided industries, with different sides taken by different creative artists, software makers, publishers, and others.

But the biggest worry of movie and music studios, along with software companies, newspapers, and many publishers, 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 is not quite as 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 nonprofits: 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. Advertising support replaced the pay-per-copy or pay-per-performance model. In addition, due to the basic physics of radio--each station can cover only a limited geographical area--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 1950s-style hysteria campaign against proposals for "pay TV." We now suffer a broadcasting regime that is not free enough--one that may stifle innovations such as podcasting.

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 individual companies bear the rewards for developing drugs, 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 an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is www.praxagora.com/andyo.


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