Economies of the Commons 2

by-sa Images for the Future

12-13 November 2010
Location: De Balie, Amsterdam

This conference, with the theme Paying the cost of making things free, is second in a series on the political economy of new media and its consequences for the cultural sector. The first, Economies of the Commons, was held in Amsterdam and Hilversum from April 10-12, 2008, organized by De Balie, The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, and Kennisland. For the 2010 Images of the Future event, the organising committee is strengthened by the participation of The Institute of Network Cultures and UvA, Faculty of Media Studies.

    The past 10 years have seen the rise of a variety of on-line public domain and open access information, knowledge and media resources attracting millions of users, sometimes on a daily basis. The overwhelming success of Wikipedia is without doubt the most striking case in point. Also known as ‘digital commons’, these resources signal a remarkable adoption of the collaborative production models of free and open source operating systems, such as Linux, that historically altered dominant practices of software development years earlier. No longer left to the exclusive domains of digital ‘insiders’, open content resources are rapidly becoming widely used and highly popular.

    But while protagonists herald the naissance of ‘free culture’, and specifically its low-cost barriers and accessibility, proprietary content producers worry that these open resources severely compromise their market position and opportunities. Skeptics speak vehemently against open content, claiming it undermines the established “gatekeeping” functions of authors, the academy, and professional institutions while lacking of any reliable business model of its own. Even as they storm the bastions of institutional content producers, the sustainability of these open content resources remains entirely unclear: after all they are not free of costs!

    The traditional public finance model can offer support to protect and nurture these open access resources but is not reliable in the context of shrinking government and public budgets. Derivative or spin-off economies can also be of help but do not seem to create the economies of scale needed to sustain high quality and labor intensive production and preservation. Donations prove unreliable in times of economic slump, especially for less prominent initiatives, while new style media conglomerates of the Yahoo!, Apple iAd, and Google type increasingly dominate the on-line advertising market. Many of these services rely on user (consumer) profiling, but this is undesirable from a privacy point of view.

    Instead, of waiting for an innovative break-through revenue model (the ‘killer-mod’), what should be evaluated is how novel hybrid solutions of content distribution and preservation strategies can create both viable markets and open access resources serving the public interest. Beyond the critical discussion of new business approaches and revenue models, this also requires a redesign of the existing legal and political frameworks (national and international) in which content producers and archivists operate.

    As Intellectual Property Rights law becomes a new breed of ‘rocket-science’, it is clear that a political intervention is needed to open up the innovative markets and serve the public interests of a 21st century information economy and digital culture, neither free nor proprietary, but instead open and competitive, creating a global level playing field.