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Creative Commons and the Notion of Socially Created Value

The efforts of software hackers and open source advocates to emphasize the collective, communitarian ethos of the Internet has also inspired activists to expand the notion of the public domain to include all information and creative works. The rallying cry of free software advocates for openness in both the code and the content of new media on the Internet has also dovetailed with the broader free culture movement, which has worked to circumvent the restrictions of copyright law in order to reserve the rights of individuals to use, modify, and redistribute cultural materials. The aims of the free culture movement read like a social justice manifesto. As Lawrence Lessig, one of the key figures in the free culture movement, writes, “So uncritically do we accept the idea of property in culture that we don’t even question when the control of that property removes our ability, as a people, to develop our culture democratically.”35 Modeled on Stallman’s GPL, Lessig and two colleagues created an alternative copyright regime for cultural materials in 2002, the Creative Commons.36 In essence, Creative Commons was conceived as a private “hack” to produce a more fine-tuned copyright structure, to replace “all rights reserved” with “some rights reserved” for those who wished to do so. It tried to do for culture what the General Public License had done for software.”37

The ultimate goal of alternative copyright systems such as Creative Commons and the GPL is to preserve the ability of individuals to both share and build on each other’s knowledge, artistic creativity, and expertise. This not only reduces barriers for individuals to participate with one another in communal projects but also works to equalize access to information for all members of society, which is a core aim of classic redistribution theories of social justice. New forms of value and innovation are created through this new form of networked creativity, which have been collectively dubbed “the commons.” The commons is “a vehicle by which new sorts of self-organized publics can gather together and exercise new types of citizenship. The commons can even serve as a viable alternative to markets that have grown stodgy, manipulative, and coercive. A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use, and sustainability. The commons is a means by which individuals can band together with like-minded souls and express a sovereignty of their own.”38 New means of modular, collective cultural production thrive on a vibrant public domain. Since this is increasingly under threat, FOSS projects that release their software under the GPL are advancing a critical twenty-first-century goal toward collectivism that is at the forefront of the social justice purpose. One simply has to look at the motivations behind most forms of cultural production to realize the historical shift in perspective. Under the traditional systems of copyright, the end goal of artistic and intellectual creation is to generate private property that—while it may be experienced by others—ultimately serves to benefit the creator. Under “copyleft” regimes like Creative Commons and the GPL, the goal of cultural production is to add value and creativity to a set of resources to which everyone has free access. This not only encourages more creativity that can then be fed back into the collective commons, but it creates new incentives for intellectual production that go beyond the accumulation of capital.

As a result of the possibilities for innovation offered by the collective commons, new forms of cultural production are also being created, many of which challenge the existing wage-labor system of postindustrial capitalism. Like software engineers in general, as well as teachers, artists, and others who work in the cultural industries, open source hackers are knowledge workers. What is less obvious about hackers is the fact that their efforts lie outside the traditional realm of the capitalist economy since the goal of the software is to be freely available to computer users around the world. Absent the profit incentive, there are a number of other motivations that typify hacker involvement in FOSS. Instead of a work environment structured by institutional or market-based demands, free software communities are often loosely organized and centered around the contributions of lines of code in order to solve specific problems. Since the computer code written by hackers is an abundant resource, writes hacker anthropologist and spokesperson Eric Raymond, the social and economic model of open source communities most closely resembles a gift culture?э Raymond writes that “abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.”40 Giving or uploading useful code to the community not only provides others with a gift but also establishes one’s reputation as a successful hacker through positive recognition from the community of other hackers. For Manuel Castells, this suggests a “techno-meritocratic” culture that develops among online hacker communities.41 He writes, “Naturally, money, formal proprietary rights, or institutional power are excluded as sources of authority and reputation. Authority based upon technological excellence, or on an early contribution to the code, is respected only if it is not seen as predominantly self-serving. In other words, the community accepts the hierarchy of excellence and seniority only as long as this authority is exercised for the well-being of the community as a whole, which means that, often, new tribes emerge and face each other. But the fundamental cleavages are not personal or ideological: they are technological.”42 In this utopian vein, Castells and other scholars of the postindustrial transition suggest that technological prowess creates new possibilities for autonomy, individuation, and freedom from wage capitalism that emerges from the networked interfaces of the postindustrial economy.43 FOSS movements fit somewhat naturally into this vision because the tools to rewrite the basic operating code of networked computers are readily available on the web for anyone with access and the patience to master. The power to change the technological course of society, therefore, is effectively taken out of the hands of industrial elites and reclaimed by individual hackers who choose to work on open source projects to fulfill their own goals and desires.

Open source software advocates often point to the Mozilla Firefox web browser as the project that most clearly demonstrates the power and value of collective labor in a networked information economy. The Netscape browser, released in 1995 and based on Mosaic, the first graphical browser for the Internet, was a favorite with end users (because it gave away its product for free) and was a much faster Internet interface than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). To counter this growing threat during the boom times of the late 1990s, Microsoft began bundling IE into new version of its operating system, making the browser the default upon installation and integrating its functions into Windows. Although Microsoft was eventually sued by the Justice Department for these actions, the Netscape Corporation began to falter in the late 1990s until it made a fateful decision for the future of the free software world in January of 1998: Netscape decided to release the source code for the browser and established a nonprofit organization (called the Mozilla Foundation) to look after the development of the browser.44 To make the notion of free software more palatable to business interests, a number of hacker advocates led by Eric Raymond adopted the term “open source” to avoid the misleading term “free” (as in no cost). Along with convincing Netscape to reveal the source code for its browser, Raymond urged his compatriots to standardize their terminology around the open source moniker, as well as to co-opt the business media such as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Forbes Magazine, which predominantly reflected the interests of the Fortune 5 00.45 The new Mozilla browser, nicknamed Firefox, thereafter began a new phase in its development—one that took place in the open and that allowed hackers and end users to understand how the software worked in order to write additional “add-ons” to extend the functionality of the browser, all under the terms of a license that kept the browser in the public domain. Today, Mozilla Firefox is one of the most popular applications for browsing the web and has demonstrated the staying power of an open source project in an environment that has hitherto privileged proprietary, closed systems. Although the advocacy community began to debate the relative merits of “free software” versus Raymond’s “open source” terminology, the catalyzing event of Netscape’s rebirth as an open source project crystallized Stallman’s early vision into a larger social movement. As Chris Kelty notes, “the practice of creating a movement is the practice of talking about a movement . . . It was in 1998—99 that geeks came to recognize that they were all doing the same thing and, almost immediately, to argue about why.”46

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