July 8, 2006

Some friendly suggestions for iCommons and free culture

Author: Tom Chance

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.

Governance

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.

Finances

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.

Category:

  • Free Software