“Pass The Open Source” – Cooking up a storm or a recipe for disaster.

On November 18, 2011
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This week I have been charged with three readings: James Boyle’s The Public Domain (Ch. 8), Chris Anderson’s Wired article on ‘The Long Tail’ and Matt Mason’s The Pirate Dilemma (Ch. 5 & 6). The key points I took from these readings were their ideas about the online community, their behaviour and why although the notion of developing, releasing, sharing and copying comes with some negative connotations, there are those who believe in working for a cause rather than for a price.

For many years I have been a huge fan of open source. When I was 18 and built my first home computer, it was run on Linux Ubuntu – the open source operating system. When I couldn’t afford Adobe’s expensive Photoshop software, I turned to GIMP – the GNU Image Manipulation Program. While living in Ireland and working on a Brian Adams concert, I was introduced to the open source audio editing suite Audacity by a colleague who was helping with the advertisements. I’ve used Thuderbird for my email, Firefox for my Browsing, VLC as my media player… the list goes on. The fact is that open source is all around us, helping with our work processes and our media creation and consumption and essentially doing it for FREE. A Union report in 2007 (Mason p.151) claimed over £525m in voluntary work contributions are made every year by the Open Source community. 

The Open Source community is built on a simple set of functions and understandings: create, share with the community to help develop and improve, release the finished version online for download and also publish the code of the final product. But Open Source is not limited to just software. For instance, some people consider meal recipes as open source; they have been posted, amended and redistributed online in much the same way as a traditional Open Source project has. The idea is based on collaboration and development for the sake of the project itself, not an end goal of large profits and global fame. Much like Boyle (p.189) goes on the describe, the sense of creating in a community drives people to work on the projects on their own free time. But with a large social network and many people focusing on the same goals, the burden is shared. 

Not all projects are harmless fun or for general productivity, however. In 2010 a virus was called Stuxnet was discovered in the system controlling the centrifuges to Iran’s nuclear reactors. The worm was intended to shut down the cooling mechanisms of uranium enrichment facilities whilst telling its operators nothing was wrong. So why is this important? Stuxnet is an Open Source virus; the code is out there to download, amend and redeploy. Although the traditional Open Source community is not being blamed for the development of such a weaponised piece of code, it could certainly be a part of the next if such releases and programming become popular amongst the community. As of this week, a new trojan virus linked to Stuxnet named Duqu was apparently detected in a second attack

Similar to the Open Source community are those who contribute to a less restrictive copyright mechanism known as Creative Commons. Rather than a single project surrounded by contributors, Creative Commons allows the release of works which would be traditionally copyrighted (music, images, books, videos etc.) and lets them be posted for others to include in their own work without cost – with appropriate credits. It is a more passive collaboration – rather than the ideas of many coming together to create something, a sole creator is offered a library of resources to build from. Creative Commons is actually a non-profit organisation headed by Harvard Law professor and copyright commentator Lawrence Lessig. It is a licence process that Lessig has “made out of private and exclusive rights” (p.184) alongside the Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Boyles describes it as an alternative to traditional copyright, replacing “all rights reserved” for “some rights reserved” (p.182). Yet although it sounds like a more open copyright process, it only streamlines copyright approval features that already exist – the traditional copyright does allow for works to be used with the correct permissions granted. The saying may be “all rights reserved”, but that does not rule out the possibility for traditional copyright holders to grant some freedom of use. 

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So what does Creative Commons give us as media producers? Much like our discussions around Open Source and the public domain, Creative Commons becomes a tool of the community. Rather than a replacement for traditional copyright, it is an amendment to make available some creative actions (copying, editing, posting) as long as certain rules are met. Copyright comes with lots of negative connotations, often through misunderstanding of its processes or the inherent legal implications of misusing it. The concept of Creative Commons developed to circumvent certain out-of-date copyright laws, allowing those who use relatively new technologies such as the internet an easier way of maintaining rights while granting creative freedom. Commons is an attempt to make some works more accessible to the creative industries, letting them manipulate and produce in a “remix culture” manner. 

I have focused much of this post on the creative communities and their open platforms – Commons and Open Source. In the readings from Anderson and Mason we also look at changes to online distribution and the online consumer. Anderson gives us insight into the model of distribution and how digitisation and online enterprise are changing it. Storage is cheap, and computer and internet speeds continue to increase; according to Moore’s Law, they will only continue to grow. This has allowed us to create vast online sales catalogues of media goods, eliminating the restrictions created when items formerly went “out of print”. 

The Long Tail economic theory has always been fascinating. Although we often discuss how success for an artist in the industry is to have one release that sells lots rather than lots of releases that sell some, we see that distributors who take advantage of online enterprise and increased technological performance (in speed or storage) have managed to create an income stream from the large percentage of releases that sell only some. The theory has its critics notably from Will Page of MCPS-PRS, who queries whether the Long Tail truly exists on services like iTunes. Anderson has defended his data and postures that although data from mobile music providers may not follow the trend explicitly, the theory does play out in the marketplace. Massive demand, a wide selection and high media consumption all make it possible. Self distribution and marketing are also contributors; along with social media sites and streamlined access to music aggregators, they allow easier access to independent and unsigned artists. 

Community was once defined by those around you; a group interacted locally for particular goals. With ever-increasing interconnectivity, we have all become members of a different type of community – the online community. Although Open Source communities were around before the internet came to fruition, online features have enabled a far greater range of collaboration than notable pre-internet groups such as the Homebrew Computer Club. Creative Commons has allowed those who wish to distribute their works a simple and streamlined process; rights holders can grant others an alternative licence to the restrictions imposed by traditional copyright law. Our ability to consume as individuals within online social platforms means that niche markets have become as important to distributors as the big hit makers; it is commercially important that those niches represent discussion, sharing and purchasing – enabling the Long Tail. But there can only be so much consumption; so with a rapid rise in material available to discover, what will be the knock on effect, if any, to the “hits”? Will the Long Tail ever simply become an equilibrium? And could it be possible that our new sense of community and development for mostly the greater good will spawn a wider ‘free culture’ movement, circumnavigating major labels and producing merely for the sake of consumption? 

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