Ruminating on DiSo and the public domain

There’s been some great pickup of the DiSo Project since Anne blogged about it on GigaOM.

I’m not really a fan of early over-hype, but fortunately the reaction so far has been polarized, which is a good thing. It tells me that people care about this idea enough to sign up, and it also means that people are threatened enough by it to defensively write it off without giving it a shot. That’s pretty much exactly where I’d hope to be.

There are also a number of folks pointing out that this idea has been done before, or is already being worked on, which, if you’re familiar with the microformats process, understand the wisdom in paving well-worn cow paths. In fact, in most cases, as Tom Conrad from Pandora has said, it’s not about giving his listeners 100% of what they want (that’s ridiculous), it’s about moving from the number of good songs from six to seven out of a set of eight. In other words, most people really don’t need a revolution, they just want a little more of what they already have, but with slight, yet appreciable, improvements.

Anyway, that’s all neither here nor there. I have a bunch of thoughts and not much time to put them down.

. . .

I’ve been thinking about mortality a lot lately, stemming from Marc Orchant’s recent tragic death and Dave Winer’s follow up post, capped off with thinking about open data formats, permanence and general digital longevity (when I die, what happens to my digital legacy? my OpenID?, etc).

Tesla Jane MullerMeanwhile, and on a happier note, I had the fortunate occasion to partake in the arrival of new life, something that, as an uncle of ~17 various nieces and nephews, I have some experience with.

In any case, these two dichotomies have been pinging around my brain like marbles in a jar for the past couple days, perhaps bringing some things into perspective.

. . .

Meanwhile, back in the Bubble, I’ve been watching “open” become the new bastard child of industry, its meaning stripped, its bite muzzled. The old corporate allergy to all things open has found a vaccine. And it’s frustrating.

Muddled up in between these thoughts on openness, permanence, and on putting my life to some good use, I started thinking about the work that I do, and the work that we, as technologists do. And I think that term shallow now, especially in indicating my humanist tendencies. I don’t want to just be someone who is technologically literate and whose job it is to advise people about how to be more successful in applying its appropriate use. I want to create culture; I want to build civilization!

And so, to that end, I’ve been mulling over imposing a mandate on the DiSo Project that forces all contributions to be released into the public domain.

Now, there are two possible routes to this end. The first is to use a license compatible with Andrius KulikauskasEthical Public Domain project. The second is to follow the microformats approach, and use the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

While I need to do more research into this topic, I’ve so far been told (by one source) that the public domain exists in murky legal territory and that perhaps using the Apache license might make more sense. But I’m not sure.

In pursuing clarity on this matter, my goals are fairly simple, and somewhat defiant.

For one thing, and speaking from experience, I think that the IPR process for both OpenID and for OAuth were wasteful efforts and demeaning to those involved. Admittedly, the IPR process is a practical reality that can’t be avoided, given the litigious way business is conducted today. Nor do I disparage those who were involved in the process, who were on the whole reasonable and quite rational; I only lament that we had to take valuable time to work out these agreements at all (I’m still waiting on Yahoo to sign the IPR agreement for OAuth, by the way). As such, by denying the creation of any potential IP that could be attached to the DiSo Project, I am effectively avoiding the need to later make promises that assert that no one will sue anyone else for actually using the technology that we co-create.

So that’s one.

Second, Facebook’s “open” platform and Google’s “open” OpenSocial systems diminish the usefulness of calling something “open”.

As far as I’m concerned, this calls for the nuclear option: from this point forward, I can’t see how anyone can call something truly open without resorting to placing the work firmly in the public domain. Otherwise, you can’t be sure and you can’t trust it to be without subsequent encumbrances.

I’m hopeful about projects like Shindig that call themselves “open source” and are able to be sponsored by stringent organizations like the Apache foundation. But these projects are few and far between, and, should they grow to any size or achieve material success, inevitably they end up having to centralize, and the “System” (yes, the one with the big es) ends up channeling them down a path of crystallization, typically leading to the establishment of archaic legal institutions or foundations, predicated on being “host” for the project’s auto-created intellectual property, like trademarks or copyrights.

In my naive view of the public domain, it seems to me that this situation can be avoided.

We did it (and continue to prove out the model) with BarCamp — even if the Community Mark designation still seems onerous to me.

And beyond the legal context of this project, I simply don’t want to have to answer to anyone questioning why I or anyone else might be involved in this project.

Certainly there’s money to be had here and there, and it’s unavoidable and not altogether a bad thing; there’s also more than enough of it to go around in the world (it’s the lack of re-circulation that should be the concern, not what people are working on or why). In terms of my interests, I never start a project with aspirations for control or domination; instead I want to work with intelligent and passionate people — and, insomuch as I am able, enable other people to pursue their passions, demonstrating, perhaps, what Craig Newmark calls nerd values. So if no one (and everyone) can own the work that we’re creating, then the only reason to be involved in this particular instance of the project is because of the experience, and because of the people involved, and because there’s something rewarding or interesting about the problems being tackled, and that their resolution holds some meaning or secondary value for the participants involved.

I can’t say that this work (or anything else that I do) will have any widespread consequences or effects. That’s hardly the point. Instead, I want to devote myself to working with good people, who care about what they do, who hold out some hope and see validity in the existence of their peers, who crave challenge, and who feel accomplished when others share in the glory of achievement.

I guess when you get older and join the “adult world” you have to justify a lot more to yourself and to others. It’s a lot harder to peel off the posture of defensiveness and disbelief that come with age than to allow yourself to respond with excitement, with hope, with incredulity and wonder. But I guess I’m not so much interested in that kind of “adult world” and I guess, too, that I’d rather give all my work away than risk getting caught up in the pettiness that pervades so much of the good that is being done, and that still needs to be done, in all the many myriad opportunities that surround us.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

9 thoughts on “Ruminating on DiSo and the public domain”

  1. I’ll have to read that article “An Economy for Giving Everything Away” since the abstract really grabbed my attention (but given that it’s now 2:45am my time…)

    Am thinking that the public domain concepts you’re referring to are fine for DiSo (and likely many other things as well), and doesn’t it just put the onus on our creative, constructive selves to find ways to take that which is “open” and free to all and still find ways to benefit from them? (I’m particularly thinking of financial benefits as I write this.) If this isn’t of interest to someone, they don’t have to work at “making a living” using something that is so widely spread to the community, right?

    DiSo is first using WordPress as its foundation. Perfect example. I have pretty close to the same core code running a whole bunch of websites that uses to host over a million. Is their opportunity any better than mine? I don’t believe so. And more to it, I wouldn’t have the same opportunity with a Moveable Type (well, until recently anyway).

    One just has to get out of the competitive mind and become more creative and constructive with the resources available to them.
    (At least that’s what my last fortune cookie stated! 😉 )

  2. Public Domain is the wrong vehicle to retain a fully open system. That’s akin to calling The Wild West a Utopia because there’s no crime.

    To protect the principles and the values of the community, you’ll have to mandate that IP is assigned to some (hopefully shared) legal entity which would have standing to protect it. Anything entered into the Public Domain cannot be mandated by anyone, and no one will be in a position to dictate how it’s used.

    As cumbersome and wasteful as you may feel the IPR may be, it is a vital component to ensuring the quality of the community going forward. It’s the cleanroom that permits participants to trust in the quality of the work, and their standing with regards to one another. Once the trust component is in effect, the community can be more open and accepting of others. It’s in systems which lack that trust, and the rigor of demonstrating trust-worthiness that the breakdowns occur and abuse is rampant (witness spam and malware).

  3. If you’re working on a specification, the problem is not copyright (you can always rewrite it in your own words), or ideas (can’t be protected), but patents. And you need to make sure contributions are not made in support of a patent. Software licenses like the ASL won’t protect you from patents either, so you do need to look into IPR policies.

  4. I’m not a license expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m afraid Public Domain has no aspects of share-alike / viral / copyleft. Anyone can make a proprietary derivative of a public domain work, in my understanding. It seems the big advantage to GPL style licenses is that they create a culture of contribution. It is that culture and the people invested in it who will defend the work against enclosure.

  5. Chris A. is absolutely correct. When art had made it into public domain, either by non-renewal or as this article suggests, by design, anyone can make a derivative work and copyright for their own gain. Not sure how I personally feel about these concepts (for instance, I have a book I’ve been editing, adding legitimate updates and changes that would easily qualify as a derivative work so I can sell online, legally. I like that this is available to me, the “non-creator” of this work as I would not likely have written such a book. But not sure how I would feel if I HAD created that book. Of course, if I had, I would have been sure to renew the copyright when it expired the first time!)

    So, yeah, from the perspective of this conversation, something of more strength should likely be considered for the protection of the project and the the community using it.

  6. Great post Chris.

    It’s interesting to see many of the above commenters merely prove your points (re: big es System etc.). A lot of their arguments used to be true, before the Web, before we had strong communities on the Web, with ability to rapidly coordinate and expose those that would abuse open and free culture (whether content, code, process, etc.).

    It comes down to the simple fact that at this point in history, the open communities based on the Web can be better trusted and relied upon to act more quickly and effectively, than any one so-called legal entity. Or to put it another way, we should minimize the number of such required “legal entity bottlenecks”, as each such dependency is a weakness, a vulnerability, a source of possible doubt and distrust. Unfortunately that’s the line of reasoning that must be used for a lot of folks, as fear tends to be a stronger motivator in more people than opportunity.

    It would be much simpler to challenge folks to base their motivations and decisions on opportunity (e.g. what public domain enables) rather than fear (nearly all the reasons given in all the comments above are based on fear, and mostly theoretical fears at that.) However this is quite challenging (though not impossible), as it requires a high level of self-reflection and self-actualization to understand and override the neurological evolutionary legacies present in our brains’ amygdala and reptilian complex where fear and resistance to change are based.[3]

    I’ll leave you with my summary statement on this topic:

    Open content cannot be truly open and long lasting unless it is published in open standards. And open standards are not fully open unless they have no restrictions.

    Viva la public domain!

    P.S. My first (after driving the voluntary public domain declarations on this past July) public actions following these principles was to create the Body Optimization wiki this past November with a requirement upon login[1] for all contributions to bereleased into the public domain per the Creative Commons Public Domain License[2]. More soon. 🙂


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