Open Source and Sustainablility

4 minute read

Using the Creative Commons to Solve the Tragedy of the Commons.

Are the concepts of the creative commons and sustainability compatible? And, might they even be helpful for each other? It seems like a natural fit – but only if you have experience in both worlds. And it’s a powerful relation that has not been commonly articulated.

The Creative Commons is a manifesto for “freedom of information”, and a legal structure for sharing information such as music, images, writing, and code (if you include its predecessors, like the Gnu Public License (GPL) for software)

Sustainability is a property of systems, usually real-world ones. These are systems designed in a way that do not negatively impact the earth’s environment, that grow within environmental limits, and at the same time provide an ongoing livelihood for people based on social justice. Sustainable Business adds in the maintenance and nurturing of a fair profit.

The relation between the two can be explained by examining the nature of these two different types of systems – matter, and information. Matter (and energy) is subject to the laws of entropy – it cannot either be created or destroyed, and in our real-world, tends to get used up. Information, on the other hand, does not get used up. Quite the opposite: the more you have, the more you get. Anyone who has checked their overflowing email box or task list lately will realize this.

Sustainability is about how to share successfully. It’s inherently anti-monopoly. Whether someone has a monopoly on physical space (land), or intellectual property (creative good), abusive (polluting or intellectual property hoarding) behavior happens. The concept of sustainability raises questions of what our rights to property and creative goods actually are.

Richard Stallman says in “Why Software Should Not Have Owners” that:

“What does society need? It needs information that is truly available to its citizens—for example, programs that people can read, fix, adapt, and improve, not just operate. But what software owners typically deliver is a black box that we can't study or change. Society also needs freedom. When a program has an owner, the users lose freedom to control part of their own lives. And above all society needs to encourage the spirit of voluntary cooperation in its citizens. When software owners tell us that helping our neighbors in a natural way is ``piracy'', they pollute our society's civic spirit”

The process of successful sharing is fundamentally based on reputation, and inherently rooted in our reality. We share the earth, the skies, our water, and more. And, now, thanks to the Internet, we share the world of digital ideas, easily, and cheaply reproducible ad infinitum. Can we recognize this obvious fact, and structure our society to work with it, instead of against it? What would that sort of structure look like?

Balderson describes an alternate structure:

This gets to a fundamental problem with the incentives created by taxing things other than asset value: Possession is rewarded over creation. Think about it: Once you possess something, you basically have no tax burden. You enjoy the benefits of young men dutifully going out to die in wars, the entire legal edifice describing and protecting your rights and without you having to pay a cent. You can just soak the public for these benefits. Taxing everything but possession (income, capital gains, sales, value added, etc) is just a way to tax the creative process. Naturally, creators who are trying to get a leg up on the situation end up selling their creations cheap to those whose possession is subsidized by the tax payments of the creators. Well, there is one exception to this rule of no taxation of possession -- and that is the patent maintenance fee. Patents are the only assets that the government taxes. This is an incredibly regressive tax hitting hardest those who are earliest to support the realization of a new technology's value -- forcing them to sell their rights ("assign") cheap to someone who has been sitting around enjoying the government's protection. It all adds up to a very nasty way of sucking capital out of the hands of creators and giving over to the hands of possessors. So the creators, unable to change the tax laws to tax assets rather than creative processes (because they can't buy the Ways and Means Committee) become socialists […] This is directly related to the issue of outsourcing since if programmers who had created the value of the information industry had been allowed to retain the value they created, they wouldn't need jobs. The corporations would be paying them royalties or be paying companies owned by the programmers for the rights to their software instead of just throwing creators out on the street after extracting their youth and creativity. A system that would work would eliminate all existing taxes (although not necessarily tariffs) and just tax net assets at a rate equal to the interest rate on the national debt -- exempting from taxation the same assets that are exempted by personal bankruptcy protection: home and tools of the trade, and retirement.

And that description basically hits home the point about sharing. Possession is not sharing, and therefore, is not sustainable. Stewardship, rather than possession, encouragement of creativity and diversity as a means of adapting to and improving our environment – these are the real sources of value.

In What we learned from the Rainforest, Tachi Kiuchi and Bill Shireman talk about “Value by Design.” What they mean is that Value comes from design (or creativity). By encouraging more creativity and innovation, rather than destroying or protecting value, we create it.