RCCS
HomeIntroducing CybercultureBook ReviewsCourses in CybercultureEvents and ConferencesFeatured LinksAbout RCCS

View All Books

Code: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy

Editor: Rishab Aiyer Ghosh
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005
Review Published: September 2008

 REVIEW 1: Michel Bauwens

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 Clippinger/Bollier.

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 Networks."

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.

Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).

Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

Michel Bauwens:
Michel Bauwens is a former three-time internet entrepreneur and the founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, which seeks to document, research, and promote peer to peer-based social processes.  <michelsub2003@yahoo.com>

RCCS
 HOME   INTRO   REVIEWS   COURSES   EVENTS   LINKS   ABOUT
©1996-2007 RCCS         ONLINE SINCE: 1996         SITE LAST UPDATED: 12.10.2009