Crowdfunding the commons

Cross-posted from the CC Blog.

What do Amanda Palmer, a book on storytelling in Africa, and particle physics have in common? That’s what I’d like to find out.

I have just spent two weeks in the Creative Commons offices in Silicon Valley, kicking off a research project that seeks to understand the role of voluntary collective action in funding and coordinating free cultural works.

Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow creators to turn directly to their audience to support their next project. Sometimes, crowdfunding looks similar to traditional business models, except consumers pay up-front. Other times, though, crowdfunding gets really interesting. Some people are using these new models in ways that shake the very foundations of copyright and our assumptions about how society can fund free cultural works in a way that is both fair and sustainable.

In a highly publicised campaign, Amanda Palmer raised nearly $1.2 million for her new album and tour last year. The album, Theatre is Evil, is now available on her website under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Also last year, 257 people came together to publish a new, free version of an important research book, Ruth Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa. The book was out of print, and its high original retail price meant that it was not available to research communities in Africa who needed access. This is a rapidly growing problem – the costs of research books now average around $100, and many books only sell around 300 copies. There is an awful lot of academic knowledge that has become inaccessible because it has gone out of print or been priced too high for libraries, individual researchers, and the public. Unglue.it provides a crowdfunding platform to tackle part of this problem, by providing a way for people around the world to contribute to the costs of open access publishing. Donors from around the world raised $7,500 to “unglue” Ruth Finnegan’s classic book, which is now available under a CC BY license.

CERN, the organization behind the Large Hadron Collider, is now tackling open access on a much larger scale. The SCOAP3 project, led by CERN, has brought together over a thousand research libraries and funding bodies in particle physics to flip the entire field of particle physics journal publishing to an open access CC BY license. By redirecting existing library budgets, the consortium provides an opportunity to sustainably fund the costs of publishing while, at the same time, making the research journals available to the world at no cost.

These — and many more — experiments are examples of what Peter Suber calls “peaceful revolutions” in publishing. In traditional models, the costs of production are met by publishers who then need to recoup their costs by selling copies of the finished work to consumers. These models invert that process by securing the required funds in advance, which then enables the authors to make the final work freely available for all to use and remix.

What’s particularly fascinating about these experiments is that conventional copyright wisdom suggests that they shouldn’t work. Copyright exists because we believe that users are generally free-riders — without the ability to restrict access to paying customers, publishers would not be able to recoup their costs. These models show that there are circumstances where people (and organisations) are willing to pay to support the production of new works and new knowledge, even when they don’t have to.

It’s now time to start trying to collect all of these experiments in new models of free and open cultural production together, to examine them within a common framework*. While there are many, many individual projects, we still don’t really understand how they all work. We do not yet have enough good data about how communities come together to create large projects. We don’t really understand what conditions make cooperation possible, and when it doesn’t work. We know little about the complex processes of negotiation, the development of social norms, that allow people to work together. And most importantly for my work, we don’t understand what fairness means in these types of relationships. Fairness in a traditional copyright market is relatively straightforward — people are paid according to the amount of copies they sell (even if the copyright system achieves fairness only on average). Fairness without exclusivity, though, is much more complicated — when do fans, creators, producers, patrons, consumers all feel like they have reached a good deal? When do people feel exploited? What is it, in all of these relationships, that limits free-riding, and how generalizable are any of the answers to these questions?

I am always looking for collaborators on these questions. If you want to help, have suggestions about new case studies, or comments about any of this, please let me know by posting below or contacting me directly at [email protected]. For more information, I also have a paper that explains the theory and beginnings of this research project: Nicolas Suzor, “Access, progress, and fairness: rethinking exclusivity in copyright” 15(2) Vand. J. of Ent. & Tech. L. 297 (2013) (PDF).

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite new examples: commonly.cc, a fascinating project by Nick Liow which aims to provide a general crowdfunding platform to release art and music into the public domain (CC0). In its first trial a few weeks ago, Commonly.cc raised $1000 in just a few days to release a bundle of game art assets, and I am really looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Commonly.cc game dev garage sale

* The framework I am adopting for this research is based on the work of Elinor Ostrom and others in examining natural resource commons. The Institutional Analysis and Design framework, as adapted for “constructed cultural commons,” provides a useful tool through which to examine a wide range of unique case studies.