Does the market need freedom, or is it modern sharecropping?

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Lots of people in a crowd.

During breakout sessions at Berlin's Free Culture Research Conference, Giorgos Cheliotis from the National University of Singapore led a discussion stemming from a recent conversation with Lawrence Lessig. The intention was a thought experiment comparing “free”--freedom and free culture—in the market with sharecropping.

Mike Linksvayer, vice-president of Creative Commons, addressed this broad conversation's main challenge on Twitter:

"when does the market need free" phrasing problematic when meaning "when does it make sense for a business to use free licenses"

Indeed, the real question was not whether the market needs free. Clearly there are examples where the market has benefited, but it's hardly true that there's been no success in absence of freedom. Cheliotis noted that even Lessig has expressed doubts that the market actually needs free.

And if these success stories for freedom are essentially sharecropping, there's also some question as to whether there is really a moral argument against this modern sharecropping. The actual sharecropping system, despite certain benefits, was often no more than indenture. But in this case is it no more than a conveniently negative term for making an accusatory analogy? Who is suffering from the system?

I think there are those who would happily argue that many of the implementations of crowdsourcing, particularly those like the spec design sites, are no better than indentured servitude at the keyboard rather than the plow. I don't find that an entirely fair comparison and wouldn't object to a slavery corollary to Godwin's law—contributors to 99signals or crowdSpring are hardly in the same situation as a indentured workers or slaves.

But the analogy has wandered—and isn't that the problem with all analogies? Sooner or later they break down, so if you want to use one to make an accusation, you'd better wrap it up quickly.

Sharecropping, at its most basic definition, involved dividing land to people who would cultivate it and share the crop with the landowner in exchange for living off his land. That, on its face, is fairly inoffensive. In its modern comparative, a well-known artist and managing music label will make their work free to remix but retain all the rights to the remixes. Or they might have an agreement of co-ownership so that you're free to remix something that would normally be copyrighted with all rights reserved, but you don't entirely retain the product of your labor. You're allowed to use the land and get value from it—the satisfaction of having engaged in that process—but the product may have to be returned in part or in whole to the “landowner,” or in this case, copyright holder.

Assuming that complete freedom is the goal, the question becomes, when can businesses benefit from free without taking ownership of the result?

Michelle Thorne, international project manager at Creative Commons, mentioned an exchange with another columnist that Cory Doctorow had on The Guardian this week. Helienne Lindvall wrote a column called “The cost of free,” saying it was ironic that "advocates of free online content" receive large speaking fees from events, citing that Doctorow had charged $10-25,000 for engagements. After explaining that that fact isn't even true, and even if it were, he goes on to explain that she's also wrong in her entire concept of what free means. She says he encourages artists to give away work for free. In answer, he writes:

The topic I leave my family and my desk to talk to people all over the world about is the risks to freedom arising from the failure of copyright giants to adapt to a world where it's impossible to prevent copying. Because it is impossible. Despite 15 long years of the copyright wars, despite draconian laws and savage penalties, despite secret treaties and widespread censorship, despite millions spent on ill-advised copy-prevention tools, more copying takes place today than ever before.

It's an excellent column for anyone who's interested in the clash where artists, freedom, and making a living intersect. Not everyone in every case should always use a free license. What is important is protecting our ability to share and fighting entities that want to stand in the way of that sharing—which puts the onus away from the market on the importance of free but on it to protect the ability to share. They're closely related, but not the same.

The audience in this discussion also discussed Flickr at length, a well-established example of how an individual business can benefit—and profit—from freedom. Linksvayer said, “The general classification is that you want to leverage other people's creativity without negotiating individual deals with all of them, and use that creativity to engage other businesses to acquire customers.” And that's exactly what Flickr's done. There are many, many other sites using Flickr's content, filtered by Creative Commons licenses and using the API to inject Flickr into other places, each of those places acquiring a business relationship with Flickr that doesn't require transaction costs.

But isn't Flickr precisely an example of the sharecropping analogy? You get an account and have a certain amount of web space, and for that, users return something to the community, which Flickr can use in other ways. While the analogy works there, I don't think that Flickr users are being punished for their contributions, except perhaps in cases of inappropriate/missing attributions, which is a whole other post for another day. It's certainly not worth negating the entire success of the Flickr model and experience.

Thorne gave another example: An industrial designer in Berlin who has been financially successful using open licenses. As a result, he's often asked what the business model around this is. Despite his financial success and critical acclaim, he admits that it's the creative freedom that has real value. He had tenure, etc., but some people undervalue the importance of the creativity result of the freedom as opposed to the monetary returns.

I don't think that this hour and a half discussion had any real conclusions, although I certainly reached a few of my own. I also believe that the community interested in these topics has a lot of lessons to learn from the open source software industry, which has already answered many of these questions. Nevertheless, other questions certainly remain, and I invite you to continue the discussion here in the comments.

Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.

1 Comment

thanks for writing a thoughtful post on the subject - indeed the sharecropping analogy may not be the best or even appropriate given its historical context, but it is interesting in its ability to call upon us to think about common online practices in a radically different way and ask some hard questions. Flickr by the way was not meant to be understood as an example of sharecropping - quite the contrary, as users retain all rights to their contributions and are thus free to take the 'product of their labor' with them and go somewhere else. But you could perhaps argue (as I think you do here) that Flickr does nevertheless benefit from said contributions and 'lives off' the labor of its user-peons,. Still, as far as sharecropping analogies go, Flickr is, by all accounts mentioned in the conference, a more benevolent case.

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