The Insidious Dangers of Faux Commons

As the wealth-generating capacities of social networking become increasingly apparent, all sorts of companies are racing to cash in. Rupert Murdoch’s MySpace website is trying to leverage its huge network of 49 million users by offering to host the songs of amateur musicians. YouTube is giving a platform for aspiring video storytellers and comedians. Washingtonpost.com has even hosted a Video Mash-Up contest in which users insert video footage of people responding to reporter Dana Milbank’s interview questions.

It’s all great fun to have open community platforms for amateur creativity and collaborative projects. But here’s the catch: the hosting companies are claiming ownership in the works that we create. If your work finds an audience, guess who owns the right to profit from it? Read the fine print of users’ agreements for the websites, and you will find that we are actually guests on someone else’s cultural estate. And you thought New Media was different from Old Media? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Michel Bauwens writes: “…while composers get rewarded when music is played in hotel lobbies, clothes shops and pubs, they don’t get a penny from it being played, and endlessly replayed, over MySpace’s network… . It’s all very much in keeping with the new feudal economics of ‘Web 2.0’: the serfs must be grateful for the hospitality of the proprietor. As PlayLouder’s Paul Sanders noted last week, plenty of people appear to be profiting from digital music – except the people who create it.”

Bauwens makes an important point: “In pure peer production, where communities consciously produce value for the commons, the common production is protected by licenses which prevent such appropriation. But this is not the case in the communities merely based on individual sharing.” Bauwens is referring to the General Public License for free software, and the Creative Commons Licenses for other creative works, both of which help users and user communities retain important measures of control over their own works.

The problem is that many social networks hosted by corporations are essentially appropriating — and monetizing — the socially created value of the commons for themselves. They entice users onto the faux commons by offering them recognition and attention to a large audience — but then they leverage the power of the assembled commons for their own profit, at the expense of users.

Faux commons are more pervasive than you might imagine. Microsoft’s Windows operating system and the Word word-processing program are so ubiquitous that they seem to belong to everyone — but of course, both programs are proprietary. Microsoft dictates its own terms of usage and interoperability with other programs. America Online presents itself as a commons, but in truth, it is a proprietary “walled garden” whose rules are dictated by AOL-Time Warner, not users. Even Starbuck’s presents its coffee shops as neighborhood commons where strangers can meet and socialize, but this is not entirely so. It was learned a few years ago that photo-taking inside of a Starbucks is forbidden because it “steals” the proprietary trade-dress interior design of the shops. When push comes to shove, these corporate zones are faux commons, not user-owned and -controlled commons.

The insidious nature of faux commons was brought home to me when I read about the deals that Google has struck with the University of California to digitize books at various UC libraries and place them online. Like so many faux commons, the idea seems fantastic. What could be more convenient, public-spirited and “win-win” than a corporation adding value to an under-leveraged resource and making it publicly available?

Yet look more closely, and the Google-UC deal looks like it could appropriate our shared resources and transform them into a faux commons. The fine print greatly limits the University?s use of Google copies, according to the Future of the Book blog. It would also prevent the cooperative “pooling” of the Google-hosted archive among different library systems. These may or may not be acceptable terms, but it’s hard to tell since the contract terms have not been publicly disclosed.

Brewster Kahle dissects the issue well: “We want a public library system in the digital age, but what we are getting is a private library system controlled by a single corporation.” (Kahle, of course, is the founder of the Internet Archive and the leader of the Open Content Alliance, which is creating real commons of digitized books.) Some have compared the Google-UC deal with the one that Showtime negotiated with the Smithsonian. That notorious deal gave Showtime exclusive access to invaluable historical films and video — all in the name of making our taxpayer-owned resources more accessible. Everyone else could be excluded.

If the first enclosures were those of common lands in Great Britain, and the second enclosures were those achieved through expansions of copyright and patents (Cf. James Boyle), then the “third enclosures” (as Michel Bauwens calls them ) uses contract terms (with users of websites and software, and with trustees of public resources) to convert commons into proprietary monopolies.

The enclosures achieved through faux commons brilliantly exploit budget crunches in the public sector by offering a “free” private-sector “solution.” (“If the government won’t spend money on this, at least the private sector will!”) Once the deal is consummated, however, the proprietary restrictions on access and use of the commons — often negotiated in secret — suddenly seem more consequential. Welcome to the faux commons.

I don’t believe that partnerships between the commons and proprietary players have to be predatory or exploitative. But the precise terms of any deal matter a great deal. The enforceable legal rights and sovereignty of commoners matter. And the transparency of any deal matters. The lesson, for me, is that we need to be alert to the risks and deceits of faux commons, and craft licenses and other mechanisms to protect wealth generated by the commons.

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.