Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Cultural Environmentalism at 10: Closing remarks

Boyle sums up, doing some conceptual housekeeping. (Shorter version from Joe Gratz here.) We have a whole bunch of projects, each responding to a different hope and different fear, collected under one umbrella. More conceptual clarity will help.

Here’s an attempt to clarify the papers’ themes: We fear unnecessary monopoly, deadweight social loss, and blocked innovation in thickets of rights. Deadweight social loss in drug pricing is called dead people – maybe it’s necessary loss, but it matters.

We worry about books rotting on shelves when they could be available to the world. Boyle is a member of the tribe that sniffs the rotting paper in libraries and becomes elated (me too!). We fear censorship, complex and simple. (For example, the use of copyright to stop Alan Cranston from translating Hitler’s Mein Kampf without redaction to show what he stood for, as opposed to the authorized English version with its anti-Semitism muted.)

We fear crippling the new social spaces tech enables by crippling the tech itself. We fear imposing a one size fits all IP scheme on developing countries in ways that are not only unjust but inefficient. We fear a world in which covert assumptions embedded in the IP system conceal distributional inequities we couldn’t defend if confronted with them directly.

We fear a world in which innovation is stultified because the industries threatened by upstarts are able to make challenges illegal and the upstarts can’t fight back because they don’t yet exist – that’s what it means to be pro-life for unborn industries.

We fear IP rules raising barriers to entry not just for innovation but for decentralization. There’s a very strong unacknowledged hearkening back to the original antitrust laws in this scholarship – we worry about concentrations of power. The fear is beyond the economic fear. I don’t want just one super media entity even if it is maximally incented to provide me with all the variation that a million would provide.

A different public domain, commons, and set of tools is implied by each of these fears. For some of them, we want free as in beer, others free as in speech. For some we simply want access, for some we oppose single-entity control over chokepoints. That’s confused people who say we lack a consistent notion. Instead we have a set of tools. We don’t want to reify anything; we don’t need a single notion of property, etc.

Thus, he shifted to our hopes: The Scottish Enlightenment version would be a rational IP policy based on evidence, with a presumption against government action. We are not just trying to build the black box of innovation, which will give us whatever the current distribution of wealth wants. Our general orientation: This stuff has changed my life and others’ in ways I couldn’t imagine and I can’t wait to see what it will disrupt next! The destabilization of power in a fermenting bubble is a strength of liberalism.

We hope for distributed innovation and culture not just because it works. And it’s not even just because of the decentralization of power. It’s a romantic hope that we could enable more widely a kind of homo ludens, a playing animal, because many of us have jobs in which we get to play with stuff and create stuff, and it’s really cool and amazingly fulfilling. We want that to be more widely available.

We don’t know how far these methods scale. Maybe they don’t scale far beyond the world of the virtual. We don’t know and we don’t want to foreclose anything. It’s reasonable to say the state shouldn’t pick; it’s also reasonable to say we should put a thumb on the scale of the side of freedom.

We are using these tools to create commons. Then we use the commons to build on itself – a virtuous cycle. CC shows why it’s exciting to be an entrepreneur – CC has gone from idea to real thing in a few years.

If hopes and fears require different inflections and tools, we don’t need a big theory. We need a bunch of little ideas that work. Maybe then things will take off in ways we never imagined, out of which new tools will come.

My closing remarks: What a great conference!

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