Intellectual Property for Social Labs

Intellectual Property for Social Labs: What Can We Learn From The Twitter IPO?

There is a lot of confusion out there about intellectual property. Often when I talk to people they assume that “open source” or “creative commons” means simply giving away work, gratis…and this begs the inevitable question, “Why would we want to give away valuable IP?” and “Why would I not sell it?”

Perhaps the most central idea to understanding different IP regimes is the idea of the commons. I’ll borrow a definition from Wikipedia and annotate it.

“Commons refers to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth.”

The commons defines, if you like, a space that is accessible by everyone. In the UK our local parks are often called a “common,” as in “Shall we go to the common?” In this instance the park may be owned by the Queen or local government, but the people that make use of it have no idea. They are allowed to access and use the resources that are located in that space.

An online space, such as the Twitter-sphere, may also be understood through the idea of the commons. Within certain limits, anyone is allowed to access the Twitter-sphere and make use of it. Even though, just like the park, the actual “real-estate” might be owned by someone.

“The commons contains public property and private property, over which people have certain traditional rights.”

So the important thing to remember about the commons is that it about use – and not simply ownership. Ownership may be private, but the question is what sort of usage is allowed.

In traditional “knowledge” businesses – such as software – the business model was very simple. You invested in developing IP, say a piece of software and then you sold it for cash. With the advent of the “knowledge economy” people have tried to extend this business model to all sorts of other knowledge products, from research to tools.

But this strategy has been turned on its head. Businesses have discovered that contributing to the commons, that is, allowing their products to be used either freely or for very small amounts of money, is a way of accruing a different set of returns. Instead of simply getting a financial return, contributing to the commons puts organisations in a position where they accrue huge amounts of social capital.

Even as the experts are scratching their heads about why Twitter is worth the billions that investors are paying for it, they are not factoring in the immense social capital that such organisations have. And one interpretation of the behaviour of the markets is that we are now rewarding different forms of return. Twitter may not have turned a profit in a conventional sense, but the markets don’t care. They have an intrinsic faith that Twitter’s social capital has immense value.

Social capital allows for a wide range of strategic moves.

Old school thinking on IP is to treat it as a private commodity to be doled out only to those who can afford it. Sort of a little like secret knowledge. This would be like Twitter raising the gates and making their services available only to an elite few.

“When commonly held property is transformed into private property this process alternatively is termed “enclosure” or more commonly, “privatization.””

This notion of knowledge-as-private-property is dying a rapid death. Organisations and entities that try to contain knowledge, privatising it and selling it are likely to find themselves rapidly outmanoeuvred. Their competitors will give away what they are trying to sell, thus accruing massive amounts of social capital and killing the old school knowledge hoarders dead in the process.

This does not mean that the knowledge products cannot be owned. What it means is that usage patterns are changing. Knowledge can be owned, just like a park can be owned. The question is what use is allowed.

This is where licenses like Creative Commons and GNU come in. They permit a wide range of usage, allowing knowledge creators to put ideas and products into the commons, creating platforms.

While the decision to put something into the commons can be viewed from an ideological point of view (do you believe in private property or not?) the point is that business logic and the markets are cutting away the need for an ideological case. When we put things into the commons, we are making the whole stronger and when the whole is strong…when the body is strong, so too are the parts, the arms, the legs and so on.

Of-course this does not stop anyone who wants to strengthen the commons from simply putting whatever they produce into the commons, making it public in perpetuity. In such instances, no restrictions on usage are put on a work. Anyone can use them.

Donors and funders who are concerned with the state of the planet have an option – they can support the creation of new forms of capital that benefit the commons.

In my mind, I imagine that the social labs revolution is about revitalising the commons, that the multiple outputs and outcomes from social labs all contribute to the health of the commons.

Further Reading:

Common As Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership РLewis Hyde 

Free Culture – Lawrence Lessig

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