Mining the wealth of networks with Yochai Benkler

About the authors
Christian Ahlert is public project lead of Creative Commons England and Wales. He is a Fellow at the Young Foundation, where he is establishing an organisation, Open Business, which can support and protect the cultural and intellectual commons in a sustainable way. He is also a Senior Research Associate of the Centre for Brazilian Studies.
Yochai Benkler a Professor of Law at Yale Law School. His research focuses on the effects of laws regulating information production and exchange on the distribution of control over information flows, knowledge, and culture in the digital environment. His particular focus has been on the neglected role of commons-based approaches towards management of resources in the digitally networked environment. He has written about the economics and political theory of rules governing telecommunications infrastructure, with a special emphasis on wireless communications, rules governing private control over information, in particular intellectual property, and of relevant aspects of US constitutional law.

From GNU/Linux to Wikipedia to collaborative platforms for the creation and distribution of music, text, and moving images, creativity is flourishing in online networks. In information, knowledge and cultural production, the networked environment has brought together the imagination and productive powers of individuals to work on new and unique outputs.

But according to Professor Yochai Benkler of Yale Law School, traditional economics, shaped by industrial norms, has failed to explain the emerging pattern of open production. Against this context his new book The Wealth of Networks introduces the concept of commons-based peer production driven by non-monetary and non-proprietary incentives.

Christian Ahlert: In your book you describe an emerging mode of production, which you call "commons-based peer production". What does this mean? Can you give examples?

Yochai Benkler: By "commons-based peer production" I mean any one of a wide range of collaborative efforts we are seeing emerging on the net in which a group of people engages in a cooperative production enterprise that effectively produces information goods without price signals or managerial commands. The most widely known example is free or open source software, such as the GNU/Linux operating system or the Apache webserver.

But the phenomenon is by no means limited to software. Wikipedia is probably the most famous example outside of software, but the phenomenon includes things like the Open Directory Project, a comprehensive human-edited directory of the web, Slashdot, perhaps the most important technology newsletter, and many of the major blogs. Some commons-based peer production efforts are less self-conscious on the part of the users, and emerge more as a function of distributed coordinate behavior, like del.icio.us or Flickr. The critical defining feature of these enterprises is that they rely primarily on social information flows, motivations and relations to organise the group. Individuals self-identify, mostly, for tasks, and through a variety of peer-review mechanisms contributions get recognised by the group and incorporated into what emerges as the collaborative output.

This article was originally published on Open Business. To read and remix Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks visit the book's wiki page, here.

CA: You also mention "non-monetary" incentives. What are those?

YB: Non-monetary motivations are what make you stop on the street for a moment to answer a stranger who asks you for the time or directions; what makes you travel five hundred miles to be with your family for the holidays, and what makes you tell a friend a joke, or listen to it. They are also the motivations that lead some of the world's leading minds to work for what, by comparison to other lines of business in which they could succeed, is a pittance – to satisfy their curiosity, for fame, or because of the sheer fun.

These are motivations on which all of us act many times a day, but which have been shunted to the periphery of the economy throughout much of the industrial period. What we see now, as the two core inputs into information production have become widely distributed in the population (that is, computation and communications capacity, on the one hand, and human creativity, experience, and wisdom, on the other hand), are that these same motivations have moved from the domain of the social and personal to occupy a larger role smack in the middle of the most advanced economies in the world today.

CA: Can heavily distributed collaborative projects relying on thousands of volunteers, like Wikipedia, be sustained?

YB: There is no reason to think that these projects cannot be sustained. There are essentially three main concerns people suggest for scepticism: where will the motivations come from over the long haul and why won't human selfishness ultimately rend these projects apart?; and why won't these projects degrade into a cacophonous medley as more people join in who are less competent or engaged than original contributors?

The answer to the first objection is that critical to the success of these projects is their ability to be broken down into discrete modules, capable of independent completion in relatively fine-grained increments. Because of this, people can contribute a little or a lot, and given large-scale connectivity as we have today, and diverse human motivations, it turns out that some combination of true believers, people who play around, occasional contributors, and people paid to participate at the interface of peer production and markets sustains these projects. What keeps them together differs in different contexts, ranging from technological platforms that serve what Clay Shirky described as social software, restraining anti-social behavior and allowing communities to self-police, through social norms, in the case of free and open source software licensing techniques, in particular copyleft like the General Public Licence.

The answer to the second question is that quality control and continuous self-correction are themselves susceptible to peer production, and we see most of the successful projects implementing various systems of collaborative peer review of the contributions, as well as collaborative production of the ultimate information good itself.

CA: Can copyright block these open forms of collaboration?

YB: Certainly. Copyright blocks access to the inputs into information production that are copyrighted. Imagine for a moment we decided tomorrow that, because the time horizon of investors investing in movies was, say, 18 months to three years, the term of copyright in music should be no more than, say, twice that, and we extinguished copyright in movies after their sixth year.

I predict that if that were to happen, within no time at all an entire culture of rip, mix and burn of movies, mash ups, and creative play would emerge, and for it a much larger industry in platforms for making movies and rating and exchanging them would grow up. None of this is possible now with all but the most ancient of movies. OK, so this is a pipedream and a speculation, but it gives you a sense of the possibilities we cannot even seriously dream of because of copyright. Annotated books, illustrated editions, updated guide books, so many other things that are much easier to imagine, once one looks at Wikipedia or sites like Tripadvisor provide a much more immediate sense of how much is lost because of copyright.

Now, that doesn't mean that we should get rid of all of copyright immediately. It is merely to offer an example of how copyright dampens the possibilities of social production, because it increases the costs, and often completely blocks access to the raw material of any information production activity – existing information.

More threatening still is not copyright proper, but the steady assault that the copyright industries have been mounting on the free information ecology through statues like the digital Millennium Copyright Act and the efforts to pass a regulatory requirement that all equipment capable of rendering digital media be designed so that it will behave predictably in the hands of its user, and that users will not be able to do things – like implement new pieces of software or copy files – that might threaten the tightly controlled distribution pipes of copyrighted material. These acts threaten the very foundations of the networked information ecology, because they seek to change the basic instrumentalities of social production and the free and easy flow of information across the network that makes it possible.

CA: There is a tricky economic question when it comes to the free (as in beer) distribution of media - books, text, music, film. How can artists be remunerated in this environment?

YB: I think here the answer is different for different forms of expression. In general, thinking at the broad abstract level of "copyright" and "information" leads to excessive concern with copyright.

For music, for example, it seems that the costs of production and distribution have declined enough that bands can record and distribute freely on the net, and the long term model is one where musicians continue to make most of their revenue from performances, but they simply don't need the big recording industry deal to cut into the revenue of their recorded music sales. It seems to be turning out that at moderate prices and when the recipients are the musicians not the labels, fans are willing to pay for recorded music as well.

Meanwhile, much of text publication has long been outside the needs of copyright. Newspapers and magazines have long been based on advertising and attention brokerage, not on copyright. Books are different, and the current solution, which is that people's habits of reading books are still allowing free distribution online to be coupled with sales, may not be long lived. Films too are a different story, because of the likely continuing high costs. Still, their control over the social experience good – going out to the movies – provides an important source of stable revenues, one that until 20 years ago used to be the sole source of Hollywood revenue. We will also, however, see a change in taste, so that much more film will be done on a small scale, as well as being itself social motivation-based or commons-based.