OpenSourceEconomicDevelopment

I recently asked myself whether there was anything I personally could do to take a big bite out of the problem of extreme poverty – the 2 billion people, a sixth of the world’s population, half of them children, earning less than $2/day. For this page, I will reframe that question as whether there is anything that a relative handful of people in the open-source software community can do. I kicked the problem around for a while, and I think I have a workable answer, or at least a promising approach. I should stress, however, that this proposal is synergistic with but does not replace the need for expanded traditional aid as outlined in Jeff Sacks terrific book The End of Poverty.

It started with me thinking about the One Laptop Per Child Initiative. This is a project to build a $100 laptop, suitable for children, rechargeable with a crank, with a wifi “repeater” system so that a bunch of distributed machines form a mesh network extending to the nearest internet portal. Machines are now under production and three nations, Libya, Rwanda and Uruguay have already signed up to buy machines for their children. Mega-cool! (And all built on open-source software, BTW.)

Then it hit me that, if every child has access to a laptop, why then, every parent will have a little internet consultant in their home. So what could we provide to parents, over the internet, that would be most useful in a developing country? What small intervention, accomplishable with limited resources, would make the most difference? This seemed at first like a complex problem, and the construction of specialized resources to help such people seems like a very important and fascinating task, but not one to which those of us without specialized development expertise or vast economic resources can easily contribute. But then I thought, perhaps this question is not properly framed. Instead of the smallest possible intervention, we might ask, what do we already have on hand that might be useful? And this led me to: Why not give them everything?

Every book ever written. Every song ever sung. Every patent. Every copyright. All the software. All the accumulated and digitized knowledge of the world, and every piece of intellectual property (IP) that exists.

After all, it does not take anything away from us, right? Because information can be copied for essentially nothing. These days, it costs money to keep from giving information away. And they can’t afford to buy any of these things, right? So it is not like IP owners would be forgoing any income from it.

Information is what economists call a pure public good because the use of it is non-rival, i.e., if it’s like the song says about love – when you give it away, you end up having more. Or at least no less. This means that, in general, you need some kind of government guarantee of a monopoly if you want private provision, because otherwise people will copy stuff rather than buy it. However, this is still not a great system, because it is inefficient. Why? Because if, say, a song is priced at a dollar but only takes a penny to copy, then all the people to whom the song would have been worth 90 cents, or 50 cents, or a nickel, whether that lower value is because they like the song but not that well or because they like it like crazy but are poor, don’t get a copy, even though it costs less then that to give them one. All the value in the long tail of people willing to pay a lower price is just destroyed by this system. One standard way around this problem is to have government pay for it and give it away for free. This creates its own problems, though there are some very important examples of it working reasonably well, each with its own system of internal checks and balances, e.g. the National Institute of Health, the academic peer review system, the BBC.

The severely poor are a perfect example of the inefficiency of the IP system. There are whole countries where almost everyone is too poor to pay a dollar to Apple for a song, or, e.g., $150 for a subscription to Tropical Medicine & International Health.

There are two big problems, objections I expect will be raised by current holders of IP rights. The first is that these people may become rich enough to buy IP someday, and so the IP owners would be forgoing some future income. The second is that if we give poor countries our IP, they can make things with it and sell them back to us at a deep discount, undercutting those who produced the information in our home markets.

So the challenge is to develop some structure that gives the IP away but still preserves opportunities for the existing IP holders to make at least as much money as they would have otherwise. For example, you might have a two-part system:

  • A gradual phase-in of royalty payments for products made with IP – books, drugs, etc. – and sold within the developing world as the producer nation’s average income rises above some threshold level; and
  • A royalty arrangement at developed-world rates if you want to sell your product to the developed world.

You would probably need to devise and get beneficiary developing nations to accept stronger IP protections in the places where you don’t give the IP away in order to persuade the developed world go along where you do.

One thing I really like about this structure is that it encourages trade among developing countries, not just between the developing and developed world, which is how most trade is structured now.

Who delivers all this info? Google and its ilk. They are already gathering it – this would give them a place where they could provide all of it without all the complex and difficult censorship they now have to do. I’d bet that it is actually cheaper for Google to give everything away than just some things.

You would need to give the whole notion a catchy name. Here are some ideas, and I solicit additional ideas from you, Dear Reader:

  • The Birthright Project
  • The Panhuman Knowledge Initiative
  • The Global Lending Library
  • Information Marshall Plan
  • Project Illumination
  • MENTOR (acronym for something)
  • Information Jubilee
  • The Wisdom Commons Project
  • The World Knowledge Enterprise Zone

Once we have brainstormed a good selection of possible names I want to identify the key swing constituencies necessary to actually put this into effect and then do some testing with surveys or focus groups.

For starters, I’d like to commission a couple of academics to do papers (say something to try to identify potential startup industries, an estimate of the likely macroeconomic value of the giveaway and its impact on development rates and poverty, proposals on how to do IP enforcement related to the restrictions on use discussed above, legal analysis of what it would take to actually do the giveaway (e.g. takings issues under the U.S. Constitution), etc.), and then have a small meeting of some key people, maybe a dozen, to see if we can get sign-on, put together a plan, maybe hold an initial press conference — probably something in NY near the UN. Pull together the religious types including the conservative churches that are good on poverty, the IT types who have more money than they know what to do with and want to see themselves as heros, and the traditional development types, with maybe some experts on IP law & economics.

I made a presentation on this idea at the Web2Open conference, looking for input and advice especially on the question of whether there is any technical solution to the problem of mass “boomerang” sales of free IP back to the developed world – not to make it impossible, but to keep it within manageable bounds. It was interesting that the audience divided into two camps. Those who were first and foremost software people challenged the question. They asserted that all IP will be free in a few years anyway. I think this is a delusion, but I agree that if it is true it makes this initiative unnecessary.

The second group were IT entrepreneurs, marketing, and other business people. They were all more enthusiastic and more interested, and pointed out that you could add a digital watermark to many kinds of media and that there are somewhat similar precedents, like the firewall Google has built around China. They also pointed out a practical problem I had not anticipated: that many of these countries are not connected to the world with links that would support the necessary bandwidth. I am still looking for more and better ideas in this area, and especially an answer to this question: “Could one, with software changes to more-or-less the existing internet architecture, draw a circle around a group of nations and sample high-volume data flows looking for signs of export of copyrighted materials?”

I am reasonably serious about pursuing this, albeit it is not my main job. I’m making attendee lists for a first conference, developing a funding strategy, etc. I have already identified and recruited a Washington DC-based non-profit with relevant expertise in the economics of IP as a partner group. We are going to bounce a few ideas around, develop a budget for an exploratory project, and then approach some possible funders. Watch this space for updates.

Discussion

Andrew, I’m sorry I missed the Web2Open conference. I like this idea. It kind of reminds me of an emerging idea that I saw about 2 years ago, where CoryDoctorow? had released one of his new novels under a CreativeCommonsDevelopingNationsLicense. This license allows anyone in certain “developing nations” to captilize on works released under it free of charge, and without paying royalties to the content originator. The license states:

 "Developing Nation" means any nation that is not classified as a "high-income enconomy" by the World Bank.

It would be interesting to convince many individual people, corporations, etc, to employ this license. (Or, just to use CCBYSA when possible).

Then, it’d be interesting to see search engines start to systematically sort out those works that are online, and that are released under CreativeCommonsDevelopingNationsLicense, or “by”, and “by-sa”, to make it easier for them to find.

A lot of people have overlooked promoting or using the CreativeCommonsDevelopingNationsLicense (other than CoryDoctorow?). But, I think that it would be great to see a lot of authors and content producers experiment with applying it to their works. The technology already exists to search for CreativeCommons works.

Sam, this is a really excelent idea. Like so many really good ideas, it makes me want to hit my head and go “Heck, why didn’t I thik of that!” What I like best about it is that it is a way for a handfull of people to do in small what we want to do in large. This popularizes the idea, and in addition, I would think that anyone who would use such a liscence would be likely to support the program that I have outlined. So it creates interesting opportunities to recruit creative people in a variety of knowledge industries.

If you know a way to get a list of works that use this license with a modest investment of work I would love to hear of it

Andrew, well, now that I’ve gone and recommended CretiveCommonsDevelopingNations? to you, it appears that the future of the license is kind of up in the air right now. I talked in irc.freenode.net to some people on the #cc channel, and most of the creative commons folks are suggesting that people not use it, because if it’s questionable future. They basically recommend just usign the existing licenses, which do the same thing that DevNations? does, for the most part, but applies to everyone, not just people in Developing Nations. There are of course already some really good searches for CreativeCommons licensed material, including http://search.creativecommons.org/, plus advanced search in google and Yahoo make provision for choosing license.

I still think that CreativeCommons license are essential to OpenSourceEconomicDevelopment. You may be interested in a project that will be going public in a few months, headed up by HowardRheingold and the Institute for The Future, working with CharlotteHess? and others. Our project is identifying “New Commons”, basically using a criteria to identify emerging new common pool resources. I’ll be sure and post here when the project launches publicly.

Sam – I agree that, to the extent that IP is issued under a creative commons license, my proposal is superfluous. However, with the possible exception of the software industry, and a few creative people who also have roots in the software industry, hardly any IP is issued under a creative commons license. I am sure that if you looked at books published, or patents issued, you would see well under five percent, and probably under one percent, of all IP under such licenses. If you are someone who makes their living as a novelist, say, there are good reasons to doubt that a creative commons license is a good way to feed your family. But it seems to me that virtually everyone could use the CreativeCommonsDevelopingNations? license at essentially no cost to themselves, but potentially great benefit to others. Hell, even Microsoft could use it.

I can see a dozen ways to use this license to push the much larger initiative that I describe here. Do you know the name of a human being involved in the decision-making about pushing or abandoning this license that I could talk to?

Do you know the folks at the Institute for the Future? You might want to point them toward the work of our Common Assets Project, on atmospheric commons, urban commons, etc. (One of the most economically important commons is the right to emit global warming pollutants into the air. If we can effectively asset public ownership of that right, it will finance a good-sized chunk of our government, or provide a quite significant annual payment to each of us.) PeterBarnes?’ book Capitalism 3.0 is also worth a look.

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