In 2008, after a talk by Richard Stallman, I asked him if there was any way to use patent law the same way copyleft uses copyright law, to effectively place inventions covered by existing patents into the commons. He responded by explaining to me the differences between copyright and patent law, which I already knew (having read his essay about “intellectual property“), and didn’t really answer my question. Later I discovered that one of the differences between the GNU GPL version 2 and version 3, first drafted in 2006, was a clause to ensure users and developers who fork GPLv3 code are protected from patent aggression (legal attacks by software patent holders). The Open Web Foundation (OWF), set up in 2008, also created license agreements where patent holders who freely release their technology, in this case to be incubated as open web standards, sign away any rights to sue anyone implementing that standard for patent infringement.

Today I came across an article by Nancy Cronin, on the GreenBiz website, about the Eco-Patent Commons, a way for patent holders to give their patents to the commons in a similar way, but in this case for inventions that may have environmental benefits. As with the OWF standards license, the only right effect the patent still has is stop anyone else patenting the same thing. Both these examples seem like answers to my question, a kind of patent equivalent of copyleft. When Elon Musk released the patents for Tesla Motors’ electric car charging technology, “in the spirit of the open source movement“, there was skepticism in some quarters about whether Tesla would honour its patent non-aggression pact, but also glowing reviews that the Tesla-Patent Commons builds on the idea of the Eco-Patent Commons, and in many ways improves on it.

Another form of patent protection is patent pools like the Open Invention Network (OIN) and the Medicines Patent Pool, in which groups of companies put a bunch of their patents in a pot, and make legal agreements not to sue each other over them. The downside of this is that it further increases the monopolistic power of companies that can afford armies of patent lawyers, as any company that doesn’t have any patents - either because it can’t afford them or because it conscientiously objects to them - can’t join the protection pool. One thing becomes clear from the various discussions of these patent commons and pools; the threat of patent litigation, whether from corporate ogres or patent trolls, means that patents do a lot more to stifle innovation than to support it. But what I learned from Stallman’s talk is that the best alternative to a patent is not an “open patent” but “prior art”, the publication of a detailed description of an invention before anyone can get a patent on it. As Nancy Cronin puts it in her article:

“An enabled invention disclosure (also called “defensive publication” or “technical bulletin”) is a written description of an invention that ideally has the same degree of detail as an issued patent. Therefore a well-written invention disclosure provides sufficient information to the reader to understand and use the invention.”

Inspired by Stallman’s talk, and by the Indymedia open-publishing new websites, I hit on the idea of setting up an open-publishing site where people could publish descriptions of their inventions. In 2010, I added ‘Prior Art’ as a proposed project on the Disintermedia wiki. Fortunately for me, I’m not the only person thinking along these lines. It turns out a number of sites have been set up to collate prior art, including IT-specific sites like Linux Defenders, run by OIN, and Research Disclosure, a general defensive publication sites for a print journal that started in 1960! There’s clearly no need for the Prior Art project, and I will be moving the page from ‘Proposed Projects’ to ‘Libre Research’, and then probably to the P2P Foundation wiki, where all the general research pages on the Disintermedia wiki will eventually be moved.

——————————————-

This is part of an ongoing series on patents:

Patents #2: Are They Actually Any Use At All? 

Patents #3: Farmers Become Hackers to Defend the ‘Right to Repair’ Tractors 

Filed March 25th, 2016 under open hardware, free software

DropBox is a useful tool. It’s handy to have your files automatically copied to an “off-site backup” - a copy that’s not in your building - stored on another computer, or what people sometimes call “in the cloud”. It’s also handy to be able to synchronize your files across a number of devices, for example your office desktop, your work laptop, your home computer, and your mobile. The problem is, the software that runs on the DropBox servers is proprietary, which means users are totally dependent on the company continuing to operate to keep getting the service, and dependent on the goodwill of the company to keep any private data stored in their DropBox account private. There are a number of free code alternatives to DropBox, such as ownCloud (AGPLv3), which you can run on your own server, or use one of a number of hosting organisations like OpenMailBox.org.

A few years ago I set up a DropBox account to upload some essential data (photos of kids ;)) from my friend’s laptop, while I helped her fix it. Just recently, I got an email from DropBox asking if I still wanted to keep the account. Other than that one situation, I don’t remember having ever used my DropBox account, and I am using ownCloud with OpenMailBox, so I decided I don’t. I downloaded a copy of my friend’s photos, just in case, and used the account deletion link in the email. The deletion page asked me why I was leaving, so I explained that I want to use and support services that run free code software on their servers. It felt every bit as satisfying as when I suspended my FarceBook account, and almost as satisfying as when I closed my WestPac account and told them it was because they invest in uranium mining in Australia.

Filed March 22nd, 2016 under News

Update18/04/2016: This piece was also published on the P2P Foundation blog.

EDIT 23/03/2016:  I integrated a few more notes on the small business/ corporation dichotomy from a comment I made on a recent TED Talk.

I just watched an excellent talk from SXSW, titled ‘Distributed: a New OS for the Digital Economy‘, on the “vacuum cleaner” effect corporations have on industries, communities, countries, and ultimately themselves, and what we might be able to do about it. Given by Doug Rushkoff, the talk riffed off themes from his new book ‘Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity‘ (I love that he advises his audience to steal a copy if that’s the only way we can read it), and his older book ‘Life Inc. How Corporations Conquered the World and How We Can Take it Back‘.

Rushkoff is an eloquent and enthusiastic speaker, who can turn a complex, nuanced argument into a funny, inspiring performance reminiscent of Russell Brand at his impassioned best. His political-economic approach integrates aspects of classical liberalism (factors of production and the peer-to-peer market as a challenge to feudalism), marxism (alienation of workers from their products), anarchism (waged work as part-time slavery), digital libertarianism (the shared platform as a radical alternative to the corporation), cooperativismo (wages can be higher and prices lower when workers are also shareholders), monetary reform (the inflationary nature of using centralized, interest-bearing debt as currency) and more. Rushkoff combines all these ingredients into a thoughtful and coherent dish of problem statements and possible solutions, rather than just throwing them all into a blender, along with a grab bag of tin-foil-hat speculation, as the makers of films like ‘Zeitgeist‘ or ‘Thrive‘ do. In fact, I’d love to see someone make an arty, activist documentary illustrating Rushkoff’s ideas with the same budget as ‘Thrive’. Something like ‘The Corporation‘, but with more focus on alternatives and solutions.

One of the core themes of the talk is the question of what drives small businesses to turn into corporations, or get bought by them? First, we need to be clear on our definition of “corporation” (also known as a “public company”), which is a state-incorporated, for-profit, limited liabilty structure, owned at least in part by whoever buys its shares on the sharemarket. Rushkoff points out that in the tech industry, “start-ups” (small businesses) need funding to develop before they can earn enough revenue to be sustainable, and the usual route for this is Venture Capitalists (VC). One the VCs put their capital in, they gradually “pivot” the business towards being acquired by a corporation, or IPO (selling shares and becoming one), so the VC can get their capital back fast, with capital gains, to put into another business.

Another option is to take out a business loan, but there is a legal limit to how much money a company can borrow. A business has to be solvent at all times (assets higher than debt), and while a loan goes on the books as a debt, an investment of equity goes on the books as an asset. Also, who hands out business loans? Banks. What are they? Usually, corporations. Since banks charge interest on loans, this also drives the business to grow, so they can afford to pay the interest as well as paying off the capital they were loaned.

Whatever idealistic social enterprise we might start-up, we are stuck in this trap unless we create sustainable alternative investment models like equity crowdfunding, micro-patronage, and ethical investment funds, who only buy non-transferable shares that can only be sold back to the business itself. These are the kinds of “small and slow solutions” (to quote Holmgren’s permaculture principles) Rushkoff discusses at the end of ‘Life Inc.’, and goes into in more detail in ‘Throwing Rocks…’. I listened to an audio book version of Life Inc. last year, read by Rushkoff himself. I highly recommend it (in either text or audio form) and I’m looking forward to reading the new one. If you only watch one online talk this year, his SXSW talk would be a pretty good choice, right up there with Yochai Benkler’s talk from last year’s CreativeCommons Summit, which was the base of my ‘Crowdsoucing or Outsourcing‘ blog post late last year.

Filed March 19th, 2016 under Uncategorized

The traditional way of running incorporated organisations in New Zealand, in fact any organisation larger than an informal collective or affinity group, is with executive groups of elected representatives (a committee or board) and General Meetings of the membership, often using Robert’s Rules of Order. The internet has allowed us to build more networked or “distributed” forms of organisation - as described by Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge in his book ‘Swarmwise‘ - that don’t need or want to use these protocols. Early last year there was a discussion in the Loomio Community about whether using online decision-making platforms like Loomio to govern an organisation fits with the New Zealand laws that govern cooperative companies. I’ve also struck this question before in discussions about the constitution for another worker-owned tech cooperative I was part of trying to establish a few years ago.

Although they have been modified somewhat over the years, the legal framework for incorporated bodies with limited liability (both for-profit companies and not-for-profit incorporated societies and trusts) was established more than a century ago, when the fastest way to communicate with shareholders or members who weren’t in the same town or city was to send a letter. The current rules reflect this, for example requiring incorporated societies to have your snail mail address to list you as an official member. Having a central executive group elected and given direction by an Annual General Meeting of the membership makes sense in this context. So does requiring a Special General Meeting to overrule executive decisions, remove elected members from the executive, or cancel someone’s membership. In a world where the only communications media are in-person meetings and letters, supplemented by telegrams and one-to-one phone calls, these rules are the only way to prevent an unrepresentative minority taking over or misusing the assets of a community organisation.

In a networked world, the ability for a group of people distributed across a country, or even the globe, to make democratic decisions using online platforms like Loomio, significantly changes the game. By allowing organisations to effectively participate in an ongoing General Meeting (or to use Occupy jargon a ‘General Assembly’) they reduce the need for an elected executive group and in-person General Meetings, perhaps even making them unnecessary. By using asynchronous, text-based decision-making processes, that unfold over time rather than being condensed into a time-bound meeting, they make it easier to hear from quieter voices, and find a genuine consensus of views, rather than having to take a majority-rules vote before time runs out or wait until the next meeting. It may be that the law needs to be updated, or that new incorporated organisational forms need to be defined in law. But this will take time, and require those of us involved in deep democracy need to get clear about what is possible under the current law, and what could be changed to better suit the way we work.

Filed March 18th, 2016 under Uncategorized

Traditional advertising is based on creating demand. Nobody wanted shrink-wrapped slices of cheese or plastic-lined paper coffee cups before some company realised they could make money by selling them. So to create a market for their products, these companies employed marketing companies, who are skilled at using psychological manipulation to convince people to want things, so they will buy those things. Worse, the companies that can afford to spend large chunks of their customers money on marketing are often the ones selling people landfill-to-be, future garbage that’s bad for them and the biosphere, sold by companies the size of small countries, who routinely strip-mine their workplaces and their communities.

Obviously, this marketing is an inherently unethical business. Comedian Bill Hicks is infamous for saying “if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself… there’s no rationalization for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers… quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on everything on this planet.” As advertising has moved onto the internet - and it’s one of the few business models so far that’s survived the transition to digital - sadly it’s continued on its merry way, working on ever more insidious ways of making people want the things companies want to sell.

But what would advertising look like if it actually functioned according to the myth it likes to tell about itself? That its job is merely to inform the world about products and services that exist, and where they can be bought, so people can more easily find out about things they already want? What if a social enterprise’s marketing budget could still be channelled into supporting the development of online platforms for news, entertainment, seach, social networks etc, but instead of the mercenary approach where advertising agencies try to convince us to buy from the particular companies that give them money, the advertising algorithms were created to connect potential customers with the most ethical way of serving their real needs?

For example, if someone is reading a food blog, the advertising algorithm would still try to sell them food, but it might also try to help them reduce their food miles by directing them to nearest food shops to where they are, giving preference to those that sell more locally grown food. Depending on the keywords in the blog, the algorithm might also give preference to organic and wholefood stores, and so on. Shops that want to support social enterprises producing free code software, or decentralized social networks, could pay into this advertising network, instead of Google adSense, or FaceBook, and would have about as much chance of someone in their local area seeing their ads, and going to their shop as a result. Plus they would have the satisfaction of knowing that their advertising spending was supporting ethically-motivated technologists, who are also more likely to be their customers, instead of further enriching corporate investors, who most likely aren’t. A win-win game for social enterprises in both freedom technology and the traditional, main-street economy.

Filed March 11th, 2016 under independent media
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