Ethics@work: Copyright, copyleft, copycat

Open content is financially and intellectually dependent on commercial content.

computer cartoon 88 (photo credit: )
computer cartoon 88
(photo credit: )
Last week we discussed the "open content" movement, which seeks to change the ownership model we are accustomed to in the world of content: music, films and books are copyright, software is licensed etc. The free content advocates believe that in today's networked world we can rely much more, perhaps almost exclusively, on free content provided by a worldwide network of millions of willing volunteers. Instead of copyright, they advocate "copyleft," which obligates users to remove restrictions instead of respecting them. In that column, I praised the most notable open content initiatives, including the Wikipedia and free, open-source programs such as the operating system Linux. However, given the grandiose claims made by advocates for free content, I think it is important to put these initiatives in context. Last week I pointed out that these initiatives are only possible because of the immense infrastructure that was created by the commercial market. Commercial providers are the ones responsible for the Internet connections, computers and basic programs that create and empower the networks of free-content providers. So "free" content is really a by-product of the market and in particular of the intellectual property protection that makes the market function. But open content is derivative in another sense, as well. Virtually all of this content is copycat content. After market participants sweat and take risks to create and sell innovative kinds of programs, the open-content guys sit back and cherry-pick those isolated, few projects that have large audiences and clearly defined characteristics and they set about creating a second-rate copy. Let's take the example of Linux. Linux is a free, open-source operating system based on Unix - a commercial operating system that was not new when I began using it in the 1970s. The creators of Linux then basically reverse-engineered old versions of existing commercial desktop and server operating systems, many of them drawing heavily on years of personal experience in the commercial sector. In addition, Linux is heavily subsidized by huge commercial companies that employ and sell it, including IBM and HP. Despite the fact that it is free and relatively easy to use, a very small fraction of household users employ it - its use is mostly limited to intrepid and experienced end users. So Linux can hardly serve as the flagship of some kind of revolution freeing content from the commercial sector. Open Office, as its name implies, is a knock-off of Microsoft Office. Again, despite the fact that it is free (while Office is quite expensive), its market penetration is minimal. The Chandler project also seeks to clone previous generation personal information management software, but its acceptance is hardly worth mentioning. The user-written, on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia is, likewise, a classic example of copycat content. Nothing original makes its way into Wikipedia. If by chance something truly innovative creeps in, it is immediately flagged and devoured by the Wiki thought police. If there is anything more democratic than the Wiki system of content generation (which by the way is getting less and less democratic by the hour), it is the Wiki system of content destruction. Wikipedia is a fantastic resource that I use almost every day, but we have to acknowledge that we can't have a whole world of recycled, lowest-common-denominator content of the kind Wikipedia provides so well. What about YouTube? We should recall that this innovative site, providing a forum for user-provided videos, is a totally commercial venture. It also depends on intellectual property protection, and sternly warns visitors against unauthorized redistribution of YouTube content. I think that most people agree that the quality of YouTube submissions is quite amateurish on the whole, and just a few days ago Sony decided that its video-share site, Crackle, will eschew the amateur market and seek professional-quality productions in the belief that this will attract more users and advertisers. YouTube also benefits from the conventional commercial sector in a different way: much of the content is actually copyright material from commercial providers. Some of these providers license the material willingly, some unwillingly, and others are suing the company, but no matter how you look at it YouTube can hardly claim the credit for this material. For the average user, open source or network-produced content is consistently second hand, second generation and most often second rate compared to protected commercial products - unless backed and promoted by commercial interests. I am worried that people may misunderstand me and think I have something against the open source movement. This is absolutely untrue. I think that open source software is an important contribution; it should be appreciated, encouraged and subsidized. Making basic resources available to all and providing an opportunity for every user to change and improve these resources is a wonderful service. I have no doubt that the quantity and quality of free content will continue to grow. But the claims that have been made for the supposed "open source revolution" are so inflated and fantastic that I feel it is necessary to introduce some perspective. Open-source software and community-provided content occupies an increasingly important niche, but a derivative one that is totally dependent both financially and intellectually on the dominant commercial market, which in turn depends on adequate protection of intellectual property rights. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.