[iDC] Review of Code

Michael Bauwens michelsub2003 at yahoo.com
Tue Sep 9 12:58:52 UTC 2008

This review of Code, Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy,  appeared for RCCS at http://rccs.usfca.edu/bookinfo.asp?ReviewID=562&BookID=405

(more book reviews at http://p2pfoundation.net/Category:Books)

if one were to ask me what are the three key
monographs to read on the emergence of peer production, peer
governance, and peer property, I would rather easily have an answer for
the first two topics. The key monograph on commons-based peer
production is undoubtedly the already classic The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler. With The Success of Open Source,
Steve Weber has written a very satisfactory account of peer governance,
or the governance of open source communities producing free software. 

What is lacking to date is a monograph on the new common property
formats that have been emerging to guarantee the social reproduction of
peer production processes. The next best thing is Code: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy, an edited volume of essays published in 2005. 

The material is based on a conference of the same name held in 2001
in Cambridge's Queens College, which was dedicated to the topic of
Collaboration and Ownership in the Digital Economy. The publisher, the Leonardo Book Series of MIT Press, is the outgrowth of a well-known journal Leonardo dedicated to the interaction between the arts with science and
technology, and how this interplay creates new forms of
cross-disciplinary collaboration. 

The volume's editor, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, is well-known for his chief editorship at the prestigious online journal First Monday and for his part in the in-depth FLOSS-POLS research covering areas such as the motivations behind free software
volunteering. The contributors to the book are anybody's dream team on
the topic with names such as Yochai Benkler, James Love, James Boyle,
John Clippinger, David Bollier, Philippe Aigrain, and Richard Stallman.
In fact, the book also contains a number of already widely known and
available essays by some of these authors, and some of these will
therefore not be discussed in much detail in our summary. These include
Ghosh's "Cooking Pot Markets and Balanced Value Flows," Benkler's
"Coase's Penguin," Boyle's "The Enclosure of the Public Domain," and
Clippinger and Bollier's "The Renaissance of the Commons." 

As a reminder, Coase's Penguin introduced commons-based peer
production in common parlance, analyzing why Coase's theory of economic
transaction costs makes its emergence unavoidable in a digital world of
marginal and near zero reproduction costs; Ghosh offered an important
variant on the gift economy theses explaining the workings of the
internet; James Boyle did a classic and much cited study comparing the
first and second enclosures, i.e. that of the British farmers losing
their land at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and the
attempts of the pro copyright extension forces to create a "feudal"
(feudal because property is subjected to all kinds of limitations)
licensing regime for digital creation (the Second Enclosure); and the
Clippinger/Bollier piece was instrumental in making the Commons into a
political topic, framing a third way next to corporations and the
state, based on a centrality for civil society. Since these key essays
were only available in journals, one of the book's merits is to have
brought them together in a seminal collection of essays. 

The book starts with an introductory essay by Ghosh, which explains
the book's division into three parts: Creativity and Domains of
Collaboration; Mechanisms for Collaboration; and Ownership, Property,
and the Commons. Part one shows how Western our notions of property
are, how rooted they are in our own tradition of possessive
individualism, and that alternatives are need, both in the West and
certainly also in the South, where they endanger traditional
creativity. Part two shows that the protocols and codes of
collaboration are never neutral, but rather are rooted in the balance
of power between various stakeholder groups, and how the excluded and
weakest parties need to become literate in the workings of and
discourses about such mechanisms. And part three represents the
positive section, and outlines how a future global order, centered
around a public commons of universally available creative works, might
function, and whether a new generation of positive information rights
should be achieved for this purpose. 

Part One: Creativity and Domains of Collaboration 

In the introduction to the first series of essays, Ghosh stresses
that tribal gift giving is part of a web of obligations, creating
reciprocity, and that this is the right framework to interpret free
software, which should therefore not be seen as an expression of
altruism. In the Linux code, every line is owned by the individual
creator, so it does not express group or collective (i.e. reflecting
the whole) ownership, but rather "multiple" ownership. The western
intellectual property rights regime ignores the common origins of
cultural productions. 

Chapter two to five are anthropological case studies. Marylin
Strathern's chapter "Imagined Collectivities and Multiple Authorship"
gets things started. Her Papua New Guinea examples focus on visions of
non-ownership, i.e. artifacts that belong to nobody, rather than to a
multiple. James Leach's "Modes of Creativity and the Register of
Ownership" focuses on multiple ownership models that are also located
in non-human entities, for example spirit songs that are considered
living entities that move within specific lineages that do not own
them. Leach concludes that "where western capital-based relations
separate through ownership ... this Melanesian economy connects through
ownership" (37). 

Chapter four, Fred Myers' "Some Properties of Culture and Persons,"
continues to explore issues of identity and property, but focuses on
his experiences with Australian aboriginals. He shows how some native
activists are attempting to use western copyright against the
dissemination of a cultural heritage they consider off-limits to
outsiders. Boatema Boateng's "Square Pegs in Round Holes: Cultural
Production, IP Frameworks and Discourses of Power" further delves into
such struggles, taking Ghanean folklore as a case study. 

If chapter one to five form a unity around the common topic of
traditional, non-western forms of creation and property, then chapters
six and seven offer a new departure, by looking inward in the own
western tradition. In chapter six, in the essay "Who God Left Out of
the Property Grab," ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger, shows his
unhappiness with the current polarities of the western debate, putting
IP multinationals against indiscriminate file-sharing. Indeed, the
latter does not guarantee any income for musicians. 

Paul A. David's chapter, "From Keeping Nature's Secrets to the
Institutionalizaiton of Open Science," looks back at how western
science moved from a system of patronage, to full institutionalization
by the state and academia. It is a marvelous read on the history of
science. One of the significant points of the author is to show how
this institutionalization of scientific collaboration is a fragile
social construct, rooted in the history of late feudalism. Therefore,
its fragile openness needs a vigorous defense. 

Part Two: Mechanisms for Collaboration 

As discussed in our introduction, we will not discuss the
previously published and well-distributed papers by Ghosh, Benkler, and

Chapter eight by Cori Hayden on Benefit Sharing (BS) is a very
important study because it shows the dynamics of cooperation and
conflict between market, state, and non-market actors. She defines the
practice as a commitment to channel some kind of returns, monetary or
not, back to a range of co-producers of value, i.e. source communities,
nations, etc. Hayden's study, however, refers to the practices
preceding the emergence of commons-based peer production such as Linux,
focusing in particular on the experience with bio-prospecting, governed
by a Convention on Biological Diversity. She highlights the tensions
between the global vs. national and national vs. native levels, and how
the regime simultaneously expropriates but also empowers native
communities. Benefit-sharing can be seen as used by corporate interests
to prevent further radicalization of the notions of property, but also
by implicitly recognizing stakeholder rights undermining the very
legitimacy of traditional IP regimes. 

Christopher Kelty's chapter, "Trust Among Algorithms," is a
particularly stimulating read. It focuses "on the productive power of
the legal and technical regimes formatting identity and ownership on
the Internet today" (128). It asks the question: how are notions of
modern identity and trust formatted and circulated amongst social
networks? Such formatting is not "objective" but rather crucially
depends on the visions held by stakeholder groups. It is important
because it is these rules that determine whether you can be trusted and
create an inside and an outside. Such systems produce "trust," but in a
standardized and fungible form that in a sense replaces money. Such
formatting therefore becomes the locus of struggle between state,
private providers, and user communities. As an example, Kelty describes
the Public Key Infrastructure for authentication. 

Jamie Love and Tim Hubbard's chapter, "Paying for the Public Good,"
asks the key question: How does one allocate resources to create goods
that will have zero price, i.e. which are non-exclusive on the side of
consumption? The examination of the financing of such public goods
proceeds from three examples: file-sharing, pharmaceutical research,
and a proposal for new intermediaries to facilitate voluntary
collective action to finance public goods. The answers seem to converge
to the creation of competitive intermediary bodies to which citizens
would direct taxation funds. 

Part Three: Ownership, Property, and the Commons 

At the beginning of part three, the stage is set by the
Clippinger/Bollier essay on the Renaissance of the Commons, a critique
of free market ideology and its fundamental ontology of
non-cooperation. It's a useful survey of the new trends in scientific
research which stress the primacy of cooperation over competition. The
essay by James Boyle on the Enclosure of the Public Domain also looks
at how to positively protect the latter. 

Chapter fifteen is "Positive Intellectual Rigths and Information
Exchanges" by the French information policy expert Philippe Aigrain who
explains that the old approach to IP focuses on the ability to restrict
usages, then seeks remedies against the adverse effects of such
restrictions. A new approach would instead define positive rights that
enable widespread social exchanges and would then look for remedies for
other basic values that would be damaged by such a rights approach.
Instead of starting from abstract principles and absolute rights, the
author proposes to differentiate intellectual entities and derive
practical proposals from such a study. 

His conclusion is that property rights are most appropriate when
investment is high, before the end result can be used "all at once"
(think movies). However, when such investment is either small, or an
increment of small steps, remuneration is helpful but does not need to
happen through property. A lot more detail is of course offered in this
analysis. He insists that IP rights for asset owners and "low
value-adding" intermediaries must be replaced by positive rights for
creators, editors, and prescriptors. The free software movement with
its General Public License has shown the way forward in achieving such
a transition. 

Part Three therefore quite logically ends with an essay
representing the views of the founder of the Free Software Movement --
Richard Stallman's "Copyright and Globalization in the Age of Computer

Overall Assessment 

Though we are still lacking the dream monograph on peer property,
this is a great volume of essays that does not give any impression of
being dated and that should be considered recommended reading for
anyone interested in the emergence of peer production, a creative
Commons, and a re-invigorated Public Domain. 

Unlike many anthologies, the underlying architecture of this volume
is logical and complementary. Apart from reprinting classic journal
essays which have defined this new field, there is none that is not
worth reading, which is exceptional in edited volumes, particularly
ones arising from conferences. However, there is not really any debate
between the essays; they are all individual essays standing on their
own. Because of the overall architecture of the book, the essays are
complementary but not in dialogue with each other. 

One critique however, is that the strong focus on the anthropology
of native populations is not balanced in any way by more current
anthropological research on the new tribes of digital natives, such as
file-sharers for examples. Given the time of the conference and the
time of publication, I believe that this is indeed a fault in
conception. The volume seems to be oriented towards the past (the
anthropology of part one) and the future (the proposals of part three),
and not enough at the present. Further, because of the timing of the
volume's publication, and therefore entirely excusable, some of the
newest developments in peer property, such as the creation of the
Creative Commons licenses, are absent of the debate. 

Nevertheless, even for an amateur expert such as this reviewer, who
is fairly knowledgeable about the field, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh's Code: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy remains a crucial and relevant contribution to the field. The book will
not face obsolescence anytime soon, but a monograph on peer property is
still very much needed.

 The P2P Foundation researches, documents and promotes peer to peer alternatives.

Wiki and Encyclopedia, at http://p2pfoundation.net; Blog, at http://blog.p2pfoundation.net; Newsletter, at http://integralvisioning.org/index.php?topic=p2p 

Basic essay at http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=499; interview at  http://poynder.blogspot.com/2006/09/p2p-very-core-of-world-to-come.html; video interview, at http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2006/09/29/network_collaboration_peer_to_peer.htm


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