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Some friendly suggestions for iCommons and free culture

By Tom Chance on July 08, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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The second iCommons summit, held at the end of June in Rio de Janeiro, proved many things about the free culture movement. The most exciting development is that we're growing rapidly, both in terms of the numbers of activists and advocates who identify themselves with the movement, and in terms of the quantity of content being distributed under free licenses. But the summit also highlighted some issues that iCommons needs to address if it is to maintain its vitality and legitimacy. This article is is a friendly prod that I hope will strengthen and unite the community.

For those unfamiliar with iCommons, here's some background. Creative Commons was founded in 2001 with the intention of bringing the tools and ideals of the free software movement to culture in general. In the past five years its success has been meteoric, with tens of millions of works released under Creative Commons licenses in the past year alone (though many are simply blog entries and the like). Much of this growth has been driven by enthusiastic communities of activists, hackers, advocates, and organisers from around the world; venture capitalists, punk rockers, and culture ministers have found common cause. To help local organisations port the licenses to their jurisdictions, the San Francisco-based organisation launched iCommons as a distinct but closely connected London-based charitable organisation. It has evolved into a de facto hub for advocates and activists.

In the final panel of the summit in Rio, the Board laid out its vision for iCommons. It proposed to develop a network of "nodes" -- active free culture projects -- that it could help to develop. Lawrence Lessig, the figurehead of the movement, insisted that the organisation wouldn't proscribe any particular ethic or practice, but would let those who share the implicit "common purpose" develop their own visions of creative freedom. The vision was one of a loose grassroots affiliation of projects that would use iCommons and the annual iSummits to share tools, policy ideas, and best practices.

A storm brewing

The trouble is that Lessig's call to base the organisation on "trust and faith in each other" is too idealistic and undemocratic. If iCommons is to be the hub for the wider free culture movement, then it should reflect that movement's values, even if, as Lessig points out, we wouldn't agree if we tried to define them.

In the final panel attendees were asked to collectively sign three declarations on Digital Rights Management, on the proposed WIPO treaty on the rights of broadcasters, and on open access. These were circulated at the last minute with no indication as to who drafted them, and we were asked merely to hum in unison to indicate our approval. These presented several problems: How long did we get to read them? Could we amend them? Who could legitimately vote on them? Should the attendees be signing declarations that will, in effect, be seen as representing the wider iCommons community? Does the vote at the summit exclude the less well off who can't afford to travel to Rio and who weren't given a scholarship by the organisers in an opaque process, not to mention those too busy?

A friendly intervention ensured that the first two declarations were sent off to be properly drafted on a wiki, to be passed sometime in the future by an unspecified means. Otherwise we would have had no time to properly read, digest, and amend the declarations. But who will finally vote to adopt them? No firm plans were made.

The declaration on open access, which committed the attendees to endorsing two further declarations on open access (Berlin and Budapest), was passed straight through. We had no idea how many of the attendees knew the contents of the declarations -- I certainly didn't -- and asking us to trust the self-selected board members on this matter is unacceptable. How much do we know about the board, their backgrounds, their views on the declarations in question?

In Rio, each declaration was ushered in by the attendees with little audible dissent. But as the movement grows, iCommons runs the risk of being seen as an illegitimate oligarchy, falsely claiming to lead and represent.


The notion that iCommons can be about tools, not ideology is naive. If iCommons were simply a meeting point, a hub with no content of its own, then we could sensibly sustain it without any democratic governance, and let grassroots projects collide and collude around a common purpose that would be made evident by those that got involved.

But as soon as you start holding annual summits, passing declarations, and setting the organisation up as a "platform for international collaboration," then you raise questions of governance. Whether they like it or not, the board of iCommons must accept that its direction for the organisation will make it be seen as a representative of the free culture movement.

We could draw a simple lesson from any number of free software projects, but I will focus on one of the less bureaucratic: KDE. Hacking on the project is a free-for-all, a bazaar much like the free culture movement. But the community has a membership organisation that deals with instances where governance makes sense. The group elects board members who deal with financial and legal issues on the community's behalf. The membership can, amongst other things, demand access to financial records at general meetings. Declarations of the kind dealt with at the iSummit would generally be passed by the membership at large, not some random subset that happened to be at a particular meeting. Board membership is gained by proving your commitment to the project, gaining the support of two existing members, and then gaining a simple majority in an online vote.

iCommons could institute a similar structure. The organisation could continue to mobilise and assist the wider free culture movement, but allow people in nodes to apply for membership, then institute a similar hands-off governance structure to that of KDE. It may require reworking iCommons' legal structure, but it would do a lot to lend legitimacy to the organisation.

Another simple change would be to ensure that the details of decisions that are to be put to a vote are circulated further in advance. Ideally the declarations would have been circulated to the membership before the summit, and more time would be allotted to debate and amend them.

We don't need to turn iCommons into a lumbering bureaucracy, but neither can it comfortably persist in such an undemocratic form.


There is another pressing issue of legitimacy -- that of finances, which is very much related to the issue of governance. The iSummit in Rio was sponsored by some big names, including Microsoft, Soros' Open Society Institute, and Google. Those three companies are, going by conversations at the summit, controversial in one way or another, though their supposed misdeeds fall far short of causing a mutiny. But what if iCommons solicited donations from an organisation that people felt much more strongly about?

We might also ask how the money is spent. How much did the iSummit cost? How were the scholarships (which covered flights and accommodation) distributed? Could the money for the venue (the Marriott) have been better spent on covering more attendees' costs?

A simple proposal, then, is for iCommons to exceed its legal obligations (i.e. publishing an annual summary of finances via the UK Charity Commission) and publish more comprehensive data for public consumption. With a membership system in place, the attendees would have been able to demand detailed records to answer the above questions and hold the board to account for any misconduct.

Looking beyond copyright to a better world

My criticisms and proposals have so far been aimed at legitimising iCommons as an organisation at the head of a grassroots movement. If they are ignored, iCommons will undoubtedly continue to grow and succeed, but it will be vulnerable, at the very least, to justified criticism, and, at worst, to open revolt. But I would also argue that iCommons could cement its legitimacy by positioning the organisation in the wider community of non-governmental organisations working for a better world.

A simple example: T-shirts and bags were made for the conference. If these were sourced from companies that meet the International Labour Organisation's convention on labour standards then we could be reassured that our T-shirts weren't made by exploited workers. iCommons could institute an ethical purchasing policy that ensures certain ethical standards such as this are met. To do otherwise is simply immoral. Countless organisations and individuals, including myself and others involved in the movement, have experience in writing such policies. It would simply be a matter of will on the behalf of the board. A similar policy could cover investments and income.

These policies needn't satisfy every ideological desire I or anyone else might express. They might be very thin, making only a few stipulations such as the above example. But without any kind of policy, and without any way for people to affect their contents, the movement has no sense of the boundaries that iCommons operates within. Ethical policies offer a basis for legitimacy.

Avoiding the storm

The board of iCommons, and the wider free culture movement that coalesces around this promising organisation, face some important choices. Do we want iCommons to be little more than a hub through which we communicate and organise? If so, then the organisation should step back from declarations and focus on developing tools to fulfill its role. Are we happy to put our faith in an unelected board of iCommons, to follow their direction and trust their judgment on issues of governance, finance, and organisation? If so, then no reform is required.

Alternatively, do we want iCommons to lead and represent the free culture community by helping us communicate and collaborate, incubating our projects, and taking a firm stand on matters of importance, such as DRM and open access? This is my vision of iCommons -- the figurehead of a grassroots movement working toward a better future. By instituting some basic governance and financial measures, the organisation can legitimately claim this role. If it were to further adopt a series of ethical policies, particularly related to but not limited to its finances, we could all feel comfortable with the future we are creating.

I hope the board of iCommons, those who attended iSummit 06, and others involved in Creative Commons projects around the world will seriously consider these suggestions. We have a year until the next summit to discuss them, which would be an appropriate time to institute any major reforms. It was promising to hear the board invite attendees to become more involved with the organisation of iSummit 07, and there is certainly a lot of good will toward the wider community from all involved. Before the next summit we should debate these issues, in the comments section of this article, in followup articles, in your blogs, and perhaps on the iSummit discussion list. Let's unite for a better world with more creative freedom.

Tom Chance has been involved with the free software and culture movements for five years. He currently leads Remix Reading, the world's first localised Creative Commons project, and is involved with Free Culture UK and The KDE Project amongst others.

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on Some friendly suggestions for iCommons and free culture

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Excellent suggestions

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 10, 2006 09:31 AM
Governance issues are not glamourous for sure but they must be right for an organisation to achieve its goals.

CC is emerging from the charismatic leader phase in its evolution, and to achieve its potential I believe your suggestions are necessities, also possibly opportunities to innovate at governance itself, eg setting an official standard for NGO's.

I have strong reservations about any large corporations with track records of lobbying governments in favour of proprietary interests gaining influence in cc. We've seen the negative impact of patent issues at W3C - schmender id. Forgive me for being suspicious at seeing that camels nose under the tent.

'Generous funding' can easily breed dependance, and without broad membership and independant finance future boards could by small steps deviate far from the founders' aspirations, or simply fail to do all the good they could have done.

If cc continues to be the source of good news, maybe then, Glasnost, Perestroika, and Democratizatsia might make a comeback in the world.


Politics and iCommons

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 10, 2006 09:20 PM

The question of government versus governance is discussed in <a href="" title="">this paper by Berry & Moss</a> which asks whether there should be more politics at the core of the whole <a href="" title="">creative commons</a> movements.

Its an interesting question, especially when examined by <a href="" title="">Niva Elkin-Koren</a> questioning whether private ordering can be the basis of a commons at all.

What seems to be at the core of these questions is whether there needs to be a positive conception of the '<a href="" title="">commoner</a>'. And if so, how will the political/economic and legal rights of this <a href="" title="">citizen of these global structures</a> be manifested and practically organised?

There is a great naivity by both sides in this debate about the status of the political in terms of the whole world. A touch of <a href="" title="">International Relations</a> might help bring the discussions closer to the reality of a somewhat Hobbesian world of competing (and sometimes co-operating nation states) rather than a flat world of citizens.


Re:Politics and iCommons

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 11, 2006 04:51 AM
I think it's important not to equate preference for something better with lack of appreciation of what is. It's precisely because of understanding the status quo that I personally want change.

Rather than accepting the received wisdom of competition for example, I dare to question it. I note the increasing frequency with which 'elected' 'representatives' tell us improvements are not possible as it would make us less competitive. This runs the gamut from healthcare to environmental protection where their cynical stance is that the only proof deemed acceptable to justify appropriate action is disaster itself.

Clearly there is a role for competition but at the moment it is out of control at the behest of corporations and elements of the investor elite imho, and serving as Noam Chomsky points out to socialise risk and privatise profit.

We're told it's a flat world. It is for global capital alright, playing nation against nation as the working stock compete for crumbs of employment from their table. Does anyone else find that relationship offensive? Smacks of the Lord and Tenant situation of yore. Whither freedom?

International co-operation is necessary to solve global issues, but with certain nations bought politicians refusing to do anything that might interfere with the orgy of wealth concentration, one vote per person is replaced by one vote per dollar (or Riyal).

So I for one am dedicated to trying out alternative social arrangements based on better things than selfishness, from food-buying groups to workers co-operatives. While considering theory is beneficial and I continue to do so, action and results are required to find our way and retreive civilisation and our environment from it's current diabolical path. Try it. Learn from it. Improve it. So forgive those of us who don't flail about endlessly in a quagmire of academic FUD.


Re:Politics and iCommons

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 11, 2006 04:21 PM
You equate nation states with capitalism and competition - perhaps forgetting that nation states can *protect* and serve to diversify different experiments in living (e.g. scandanavian models of social democracy/french protectionism). When you have suceeded in your mission to flatten out all nation states under one-world-government where will be alternatives? diversity? resistance?

You'll maybe find that your lovely food-buying groups work well for those who mindlessly accept the limitations of their group-think, but for anyone who seeks an alternative lifestyle to this they will be excomunicated or banished. Sure you'll have a lovely community of friends, but you'll also be creating a lot of enemies. A dangerous game my friend.

So rather than "flail about endlessly in a quagmire of academic FUD" you'll be flailing about in an endless quagmire of mediocrity and drone-think. Happy (false) smiles as you slowly become prey to stagnation and eventual civil war.


Re:Politics and iCommons

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 11, 2006 08:31 PM
I think part of your problem here is you equate competition with capitalism.

Competition can be profit-motivated, and clearly the ration-choice models in economics favour that notion.

But competion can also mean diversity and exchange between competing world-views. It can mean a multiplicity of approaches and ideas and it can widen our perspectives rather than narrow them.


Re:Politics and iCommons

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 11, 2006 08:37 PM
Interesting subject well discussed by Peter Drahos in <a href="" title="">A Defence of the Intellectual Commons</a>.

Where is iCommons in that discussion?


Open Democracy

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 10, 2006 09:28 PM

A really interesting question and follows on from the debates that have been raised on <a href="" title="">Open Democracy</a> about remix culture and icommons.


The Problem with iCommons

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 11, 2006 08:26 PM
The real issue with iCommons is it doesn't know what it wants to be and has no real sense of direction.

With no core values, no mission, no ideals it is just empty. You can't just aim to create a global common without these - otherwise you are creating something without understanding the consequences of your creation. Its mindless.

With the news that Scooptwords partners with Creative Commons to 'monetize their words"... the direction of Creative Commons is less on the creative and more on the exploitative...

RMS left Creative Commons for a reason... it looks like he was foresighted yet again...


He who pays the piper picks the tune...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 11, 2006 08:34 PM
Soros, Microsoft et al...

He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil..



Re:He who pays the piper picks the tune...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 12, 2006 06:10 PM
Indeed. Thanks for this article Tom. I think your final remarks at the Summit were very needed though I was surprised about the coolness with which they were received. Soros sponsorship I can swallow (just) but once you get into Google, and certainly Microsoft you have to start asking yourself what the hell iCommons/CC even stands for.

CC currently suffers from a kind of American centric universalism. CC thinks it can be the license for everyone and promote it's values as universal (sound familiar?). A dangerous and arrogant idea that leaves CC meaning almost nothing (because it fails to stand for anything) and hopping into bed with dubious sponsors (some of whom apear to buy their way onto panels even!!).

Lessig's comment that we can't define the movement because we'll all end up disagreeing is hogwash. The iCommons board is defining the movement and their version of free culture includes Microsoft and Google. iCommons risks alienating some of their core supporters/promotors and an "open revolt" as Tom mentions. The only way to hold this off is to get back to the grassroots and have the leadership follow the direction of the base rather than dictate from above. How about a bit of <a href="" title="">Zapatismo</a>? Though I must say I have serious doubts as to the activist abilities of self-appointed iCommons board. Good beaurcrats and venture capitalists they may be but building a successful grassroots network is something entirely different. <a href="" title=""></a>


Trust, Governance, Bounty Hunters

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on July 12, 2006 02:53 AM
"base the organisation on "trust and faith in each other" is too idealistic and undemocratic."

If trust and faith were sufficient, then all the FLOSS projects currently around could convert to Public Domain style licenses and could trust that it would work out. Copyleft licenses replace trust with legally secure mechanisms to protect FLOSS projects.

See the difference between Public Domain licences and Copyleft licenses here:

<a href="" title=""><nobr>f<wbr></nobr> tdomain.htm#8_Copyleft_or_Public_Domain_</a>

"as soon as you start holding annual summits, passing declarations, and setting the organisation up as a "platform for international collaboration," then you raise questions of governance."

Didn't this come up recently when Bruce Perens was not allowed on the OSI board, and the OSI board basically responded with "trust us"? FLOSS organizations should have transparent governance. The source should be visible. There should be no proprietary maneuvaring going on behind closed doors.

Greg London
Bounty Hunters,
Metaphors for Fair Intellectual Property Laws
<a href="" title=""></a>


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