When The Garden Walls Come Crumbling Down

Or what would happen if Facebook went GPL

In thesis no. 93 The Cluetrain Manifesto claims :

We’re both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down.

I agree. I experience these annoyances on a daily basis. Sometimes I have to really constrain myself not to let go of my temper, because I feel that our insights in many ways far precede our abilities to apply these to practical use. For instance, I cannot understand that while I do 95% of my banking via the internet, most banks do not put 95% of their ressources to work to give me as a customer the best possible online banking experience. Even less would probably do. If they just put 80% behind it, that would probably suffice. But they don’t. I am also annoyed when I have to communicate with my daughter’s doctor via an online form which permits only a limited amount of characters, largely because they do not trust email as a means of communication. In fact, I am always annoyed when people who presumably wants to communicate with me, don’t let me communicate back on equal terms. I find that arrogant. As far as possible I resist their attempts to control the way in which I should communicate with them.

The rooms in which we speak

Architectures are important. They are the ways we construct the rooms in which we speak. The “conversations” of The Cluetrain Manifesto take place within the framework of such architectures. They have names such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. Other such architectures are called things like WordPress, Joomla, MediaWiki, Firefox, RSS and GNU/Linux. They have a tremendous impact on the ways we communicate online, on the ways in which we filter our incoming information streams, and on the ways we enable new connections and enable new ideas to reach others, and enable their ideas to reach us. As important as architecture is, so more important is ownership : that we claim ownership to the tools we use. That we claim ownership to the channels and the walls that decide who will learn to know us, who will receive our message, and who will be filtered out, who will not. We decide what walls are torn down and what are built. With the web and simple tools we can, and we do.

Many of the software architectures that we employ, from the webserver and webscripting functionality of Apache and PHP to the popular self-publishing power of tools such as WordPress, are free software. I.e. built and easily adaptable by anyone who wants to adapt them for particular purposes.

Walled gardens

Other architectures are walled gardens, maintained by organizations and companies, who are not concerned about the choice of their customers. While companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google offer greatly useful applications to their customers, their services impose limits on their use. In short, they choose to remain in control. They choose not to release the source code. Not to let their users adapt the tools they’re offering to their particular purpose.

If a company such as Facebook or Twitter goes bankrupt, users will lose their data – no compensation, no anything. There’s no obvious way to retrieve data from these services, and since the code is not free, one can’t write tools to retrieve those data by oneself. While most of these services offer useful and advanced interfaces so that programmers can access their data from the outside, the service stays in control. You can’t obtain access to data they don’t want you to obtain access to. Facebook ultimately decides who they like to write applications for “their” platform. Twitter abolishes user accounts at their whim, because ultimately Twitter decides. Ultimately, Google decides to pull the plug on a GMail or YouTube account, on grounds they choose, not their customers.

These walls of proprietary ownership are the Berlin walls of today. We meet them everywhere, when we are annoyed we can’t do certain things with the tools we use. When we communicate within the confines of architectures that we do not own and do not feel comfortable with, because they disallow us to be ourselves. In the worst case, we hit them head on when we find that our account on some service has been abolished unfairly, with nothing we can say to get our data back. When a service ceases to be in business, a product ceases to be supported, or a new company policy is enforced in spite of what we feel about it.

So how are these walls going to come crumbling down?

Free software

As I do here and have often argued, the only way we can operate freely in our online environments is if and when we ourselves are able to create, adapt, control and empower the architectures that we employ. We need our software and online services to be as easily adaptable as any article on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is enabled by the clever use of a particular architecture in combination with a copyright in reverse known as “copyleft”. The GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) license ensures that every contribution to Wikipedia’s articles can be freely adapted and re-distributed by others.

Until now, free software have also relied on copyright. Similar to Wikipedia’s license, the General Public License (GPL) which is commonly used for most free software projects ensures that the code stays open and can be manipulated by anyone, no matter who distributes or sells it.

But free software need not depend on copyright. The greatest barrier to the spread of free software is that so many do not understand why it is important. Too many business executives cannot see, that it is as beneficial to them as to their customers, that they facilitate their customers’ ability to change and adapt the code. Too many organizations do not understand that releasing their source code opens up new, decentralized, flexible and less costly ways to organize their activities. And too many internet users (myself included) are too convenient with their habitual uses of proprietary online tools to question deeply and realize what’s at stake. We also find time to be a scarce good, since we also have to work to pay our bills – often inside companies led by execs who don’t “get it”.

How things look from the inside

The free software movement is “working on the outside” to bring down these walls. But on the inside, every Facebook, Google and Twitter employee is also an internet user and customer. They are people who talk using these same tools, they have other lives, they quit and start their own businesses, in short they engage in conversations where they go (or are allowed to go, by their companies). What limitations in ownership are put in place by their companies also limit their ability to deliver the best possible product, the best possible service and the best way to help solve their customer’s problems. They are equally annoyed by the corporate walls put in place beyond their control.

There are two great problems which faces the walled corporations, now and in the future :

1. They will increasingly encounter free architectures and services, which may yet perform poorly, but have much greater potential to outgrow and outperform their proprietary competitors.

2. As clever candidates everywhere discover their own ability to build and employ free architectures of their own choosing and flavour and adapt them to suit their own particular purposes, companies will find it increasingly harder to find qualified candidates to fill positions. What’s attractive in working under the command of a boss, if you can work for yourself? What’s the attraction in working for a company, whose business model is not adaptable to the open environments spreading on the web?

What if Facebook went GPL?

In closing, let me speculate aloud to show an example of the business landscape I believe will replace the walled gardens of today’s corporate environment. Among many online applications, Facebook is probably the service with which I have the most problematic relationship. There’s no doubt in my mind that Facebook does something very well : it helps facilitate connections and conversations. It helps me get in touch and stay in touch with family, friends and business contacts who wouldn’t otherwise read my blog or relate to me via other online tools. It works really great for friends you don’t see a lot on a daily basis, but still want to stay in touch with. But for all it’s merits, I hate the fact that I can’t easily search and access data in Facebook. I dislike that I can’t extract the information I need with RSS from my Facebook archives, and that I cannot play even further with the category layers, to adapt the service even further to suit my needs.

Let’s imagine that Facebook decides to go open source. Facebook releases it’s source code and invites developers to join in and contribute to the code. They still are leading the development of the core Facebook application, but also offer anyone a downloadable package, which can be freely modified and redistributed. Anyone is free to fork Facebook and set up a rival site.

What would happen then?

First, we’d fix everything that is wrong with it. We’d add RSS feeds to all the places where we’d like RSS feeds. We’d work to make what’s going on transparent, so that we could learn from it. And we’d make those changes publically available to anyone, who’d like to take a look and use them for their own purposes.

But what I think makes Facebook really brilliant as a free software package is the way it can adopt external applications within itself. Facebook as a general purpose communications platform is great and extremely adaptable. This makes it well suited as a platform for almost any corporate website. Most companies need to enable conversations across the organization, with suppliers, customers, investors, and everyone else slightly related to the company. The fact that most companies’ employees already spend a good deal of time using Facebook during work hours shouldn’t lead to abolishing and blocking Facebook from office computers, but should rather be seen as an encouragement to take this brilliant tool and give it a form of their own choosing. If Facebook was released under GPL, that would indeed be a viable option.

Adopting Facebook as a corporate platform would not only allow employees and customers to communicate on equal footing, it would also allow them to create applications for the platform, which would help adapt the package in very particular, employee- and customer-centric ways to suit the company’s purposes. That the package already has proven so scalable on a global level is a testament to it’s robustness in even the most trying of corporate environments.

But even if Facebook is not released under GPL, we’re already well on our way to build, use and sustain software like this, and many businesses do build their own social networking architectures. In fact, many CMS packages which are free software already implement features which mirror the successful features of Facebook and other social networking services. For WordPress, we already have BuddyPress, a prebundled collection of plugins which convert a WordPress installation to a fullblown social networking site.

But businesses and developers will continue to get it wrong, if they do not offer their employees, members and customers the same freedoms by releasing their source code, as they had when they chose to base their solution on free software.

In the long term, the question is, if Facebook and other proprietary businesses will still have a business model, if they do not give up control and release their code? If they do not enable the free adaptability of their software, chances are, with time, we’ll just build our own.

This post is part of the Cluetrain Manifesto 10-year Anniversary Blogging Event organized by Keith McArthur, in which 95 bloggers all write today about one of the 95 theses put forth by The Cluetrain Manifesto 10 years ago.

EDIT : The link to the CluetrainPlus10 PBwiki page works again. Here’s Keith’s latest post about the project.

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Google as in “Massive Copyright Infringement”

Torrent index sites like The Pirate Bay are often compared to search engines such as Google in that both offer vast indexes of information, and both give easy access to unauthorized copies of copyrighted material.

One thing which surfaced during the Pirate Bay trial in late February was IFPI’s cooperation with Google and other search services in their battles against copyright infringement. When IFPI’s representative John Kennedy was asked why they sued The Pirate Bay and not Google (as in “or any other major information filtering service using the internet”), the answer was that Google cooperated, and The Pirate Bay didn’t :

When asked about the differences between TPB and Google, Kennedy said there is no comparison. “We talk to Google all the time about preventing piracy. If you go to Google and type in Coldplay you get 40 million results – press stories, legal Coldplay music, review, appraisals of concerts/records. If you go to Pirate Bay you will get less than 1000 results, all of which give you access to illegal music or videos. Unfortunately The Pirate Bay does what it says in its description and its main aim is to make available unauthorized material. It filters fake material, it authorizes, it induces.”

(…) Kennedy was asked why they haven’t sued Google the same way as TPB. He said that Google said they would partner IFPI in fighting piracy and he has a team of 10 people working with Google every day, and if Google hadn’t announced they were a partner, IFPI would have sued them too.

I think the truth of the matter is, that Google’s business is based on copyright infringement from the start. When Brin and Page started Google, they started by downloading the entire internet and offering their index of it online. In the words of Larry Page himself, in David Vise’s The Google Story :

Google was started when Sergey and I were Ph.D. students at Stanford University in computer science, and we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do. I got this crazy idea that I was going to download the entire Web onto my computer. I told my advisor that it would only take a week. After about a year or so, I had some portion of it.

In order to offer Google’s search of their index to the world, they had to keep all the internet’s content on their own servers, otherwise their results wouldn’t be very fast. Did they ask every single website owner or administrator for permission to use said material? No. Did they need to? No, in fact they couldn’t. That would have been prohibitive for what they were doing. The cost alone of asking would have been prohibitive for what Google was doing, if they even knew themselves, what they were doing.

However, was what they did beneficial to the world? Yes, one may very well say so, to a degree that Google is now a hugely successful business whose operations span the globe and benefit millions, if not billions of people on a daily business. What Google did was transformative, defining of the internet. It defined the web.

What Google added was their filtering index of the web. On their servers, the content of sites were analyzed and ranked according to PageRank, an algorithm which rewards sites which are greatly linked to with a better placement in search results than sites which have generated fewer links.

But for this to work they needed the data to work with. Google has done a lot to give users the impression, than when one is using their core product (search), it appears like one has instant access to all of the World Wide Web. This is a brilliant illusion, but no matter how good it is, one is still only surfing around on Google’s own servers, which store Terabyte after Terabyte of unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. The fact remains, that Google took this data, without asking anyone for permission. Perhaps they didn’t need to, perhaps they didn’t deem it necessary. What Google did was one of the greatest things that could have happened to the web at the time, and what everyone else involved in the search industry was doing. Throwing around data without paying any kind of homage to copyright owners. To the great benefit of everyone of us today, most will say.

What The Pirate Bay and other sites are doing today – is no less transformative. But they’re not cooperating.

What happened since Google introduced their filters to the world was that the “war on piracy” became greatly intensified. Napster and peer-to-peer networks threatened the monopolies of first the record industry, since the Hollywood-based entertainment industry. Google and other services which offer online metadata – i.e. access to “other people’s” information via the internet, got trapped in that battle. Some felt they had to choose sides. And most chose to cooperate with the entertainment industries – over what was right or true or just. Whether this line of business was born out of the pragmatism of doing “business” and avoid expensive law suits or out of a mission to “do no evil” doesn’t matter. Google and likeminded companies will do a lot to cover up the fact that what they are doing is based on massive copyright infringement – including cooperating with IFPI to filter online information – every day. Which in my humble opinion is very creepy.

I say this as a big fan of Google, as a daily user of countless Google products, which I would hate to live without.

It’s a pretty good fraud. Cooperate with IFPI and other copyright holders to only slightly cover up the fact, that the whole thing is based on copying other people’s material. Blur the distinctions to the extent that it even confuses the courts as to what they should believe. What is really the difference between Google and similar search filters and a service such as The Pirate Bay? Both store and provide access to metadata. But while the first stores everything on their own servers, from where they provide access to local sites and material – The Pirate Bay and others employ a superior technology, which offers nothing but hyperlinks directly to material stored on their users’ own machines. So why should The Pirate Bay lose the case which is going on right now in Sweden? Because they do not cooperate. They do not care about anyone’s material. What they’re interested in is developing a new technology to the benefit of all of us. They do what Google did in 1998, except they do not commit any copyright infringement at all.

On a curious note, Google also ranks web sites according to how “unique” their contents are. This means, that if you run an aggregation site, i.e. a site which harvests and provides access to the content of other web sites – just like Google did, and still do – Google assigns you penalty points, and your site will be harder to find using Google’s search. Your site will rank lower, if you do what Google does : copy the content of other websites.

What’s really scary however is the degree to which we rely on proprietary filtering services such as Google’s search, which are influenced by interests we don’t know about. Google presents itself as an almost universally neutral service, which can give us an instant answer to almost every problem we face. The truth is, Google is in fact a highly weighted information filtering service, which is influenced by the special interests of organizations such as IFPI, on no legal grounds except what pleases and what not pleases Google and is completely dependant on their choice to cooperate. We don’t know what other special interests Google chooses to cooperate with, and we have absolutely nothing to say as to whether they do and how they let their search results be influenced by them. I can only conclude, that while a few young people in Sweden are willing to stand up for our freedom of speech (for this is what I consider the “freedom to link” to be) – it is shameful to realize again and again, that the world’s information filtering superpower is not.

In my view there is no other way out of this misery than to create and help build new sets of truly de-centralized information filtering tools and services, which are based on free software, which cannot be influenced, manipulated or dominated by any particular third party. Tools which enable better, faster and more precise connections between someone who wants a message or query out – and those who wish to receive and answer it. We’re still throwing around rocks in our information stone age when playing with proprietary services and tools such as Twitter, YouTube and the many many others we use on a daily basis.

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You can have your ice cream and eat it too!

This previous friday, March 20th, there was supposedly a demonstration taking place in 4 major Danish cities, against the court orders which demand ISP’s to block access for their customers to the Swedish website The Pirate Bay. For the technically savvy, a block which is easy to circumvent, and for the less savvy, easy to find a guide to circumvent using Google or with friends’ help. Still, it is clearly bad if private companies begin to police what websites we can visit and what sites we can’t. It’s not their job. Most ISP’s don’t seem to be too happy about it either, but most also lack the balls to stand up to the ridiculousness of this situation.

What happens next? Once established, that it is okay for ISP’s to block sites at the IFPI’s request, will they ask for stronger blocks? Will they ask for more sites to be blocked? Will they go country by country, using this strategy, until we are blocked out from half the internet, which allows us to find unauthorized copies of copyrighted material?

So, when invited to this demonstration via Facebook I said sure, I’ll come too. I will stand up to what I say and show up, to support an event which was no doubt difficult to get people involved in. On friday, I arrived at the city hall square here in Odense just before the appointed time. And I looked for the young activists, who would soon listen to passionate speeches, storm the barricades and revolt in justified anger. But there were no riots, no armoured policemen behind plastic shields – and no angry young men throwing stones at them. There were no heated speeches or masses of the politically discontent.

Instead, the city square looked like this and this. For a long while there was also a lone guy with a bicycle waiting for someone, and I later learnt this was the keynote speaker, (also) waiting for the demonstration which never came. Of course there were also tourists, old people occasionally crossing the square, people enjoying the sun on the benches with a beer or an ice cream. Like myself :

As it turns out, the political battles of the 21st century are not fought on barricades or with strong political slogans, yelt from city squares where the masses demonstrate their power against villains in office. Instead they are fought on ice cream.

Clay Shirky, writing about Belarus protesters, who used flash mobs in 2006 to show their discontent with the regime :

In May someone posting under the name by_mob used LiveJournal, a piece of blogging software, to propose a flash mob for the fifteenth of that month. (…) the idea was simply that people would show up in Oktyabrskaya Square and eat ice cream. The results were one part ridiculous and three parts depressing; police were waiting in the square and hauled away several of the ice cream eaters, all while being documented in the now-standard pattern as other participants took digital pictures and uploaded them to Flickr, LiveJorunal, and other online outlets. These pictures in turn recirculated by bloggers like Andy Carvin and Ethan Zuckerman, political bloggers who cover the use of technology as a tool for social change. Images of a repressive Belarus thus spread far beyond the borders of Minsk. Nothing says “police state” like detaining kids for eating ice cream. (Here Comes Everybody, p. 166-167)

There were other flash mobs held, one where participants were encouraged to read aloud pieces of banned writers, and another where people were incited to nothing more than “walk around Oktyabrskaya smiling at one another”.

This action produced the same reaction from the state; attendees reported that the police were using the presence of a pocketknife to try one of the smilers with weapons possession.

The police weren’t reacting to the ice cream eating, reading or smiling itself. The chosen behaviour was intentionally innocuous, because the real message lay not in the behaviour but in the collective action.

What is dangerous to the Belarus regime, is the way protesters make it possible for others to know about what is going on. Protesting is an information sharing business. It is about getting your message out, so that more people will know. And if more people know, more will take action to change things. When photos and videos of what’s going on circulate globally, it makes it much more difficult for the people in power to control the message. It creates a shared awareness. Clay Shirky again :

The military often talks about “shared awareness”, which is the ability of many different people and groups to understand a situation, and to understand who else has the same understanding. If I see a fire break out, and I see that you see it as well, we may more easily coordinate our actions – you call 911, I grab a fire extinguisher – than if I have to call your attention to the fire, or if I am in some confusion about how you will react to the a fire. Shared awareness allows otherwise uncoordinated groups to begin to work together more quickly and effectively.

This kind of social awareness has three levels: when everybody knows something, when everybody knows that everybody knows, and when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows. (p. 163)

The battles of the digital frontiers have always been about controlling what message gets out, controlling what story is told. From the “Piracy is theft!” slogans of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) in the 1980′es to the law suits of the 1990′es against teenagers for sharing files using the internet. The story told now is one about child pornography, and since we should all condemn and be afraid of that, it’s suddenly okay to call the quits on everything called free speech and make ISP’s block particular web sites. All we need to do is shout “piracy”. No?

A bunch of clever scandinavians claimed back the concept of “piracy” and began to describe themselves as “pirates”. Their torrent index site began to attract the attention of a global pool of users, and with them the attention of global media. And the story began to sound a little different. What had been demonized and called foul names and made people bow their heads in fear for decades now took another meaning. What was previously unthinkable to be uttered aloud in good company, could suddenly mean something else. In fact the meaning attributed by the copyright industries to the concept of piracy is undermined, when ordinary (primarily young) people start using it as something that describe themselves and of which they are proud. It makes it much harder to control the message.

But that doesn’t mean this stops here. I think protest organizers and participants of this struggle need to educate themselves and think deeply about how to organize in new ways, reach each other and create that “shared awareness”, which is necessary for us to act in any coordinated way. It means embracing new services, free software tools, share information effectively with wikis, use social messaging in the Twitter sense, plan and execute flash mobs of the Belarus sort, which create awareness not because there are a lot of people there, but because the images from the happenings reach a lot of people, or reach the right people. It means connecting with others in insightful ways.

So what do I mean by that curious title? It means that digital goods can be copied. Events can be captured and communicated. Among other things, it means we can use digital information more than once, on more different platforms, to reach more different people. It means there are no real limits as to what we can do to create a deeper shared awareness, which makes it easier for say, protesters to recognize each other as protesters on a city square in a town like Odense.

Someone may claim that a video of someone eating ice cream is not real ice cream, it is simply, like Magritte would say, an image of an ice cream. Or in the terms of our times, a copy of an ice cream. Which is true enough. But it can have a great effect, nonetheless.

[UPDATE: 2012-07-02 - fixed and added photolinks]

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Free Software And Proprietary Dead-ends

Stumbled over this interesting discussion about WordPress “premium” plugins and themes, i.e. plugins or themes which are sold at a price, just like any other piece of proprietary software. WordPress Premium Themes have been around for a while, and they recently spawned quite a discussion on the WP-hackers mailing list, when over 200 themes was removed from the WordPress.com selection of themes.

The focus of the discussion is the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License (GPL), and whether plugins or themes based on a GPL’ed piece of software such as WordPress can be sold for profit.

There are several voices in this broad discussion, and to characterize some of the perspectives :

  • Commercial developers and start-ups, who need a way to make a living from what they do : create WordPress plugins and themes
  • WordPress users who demand more features and ever more clever ways to personalize and customize the software they use
  • Open source developers who feel cheated when what they’ve spent hours and hours developing is “sold” by others
  • Purists who feel that since WordPress is free (GPL’ed as well as free of charge) every component based on or rooted in WordPress ought also to be free
  • Pragmatics who tend to say that as long as the GPL is respected, developers may do anything with the code, and that plugins which are developed from scratch are not necessarily born GPL’ed

I think this is a crucial discussion for the future of open source and “free” software.

As far as my understanding of the GPL goes there’s nothing wrong with redistributing GPL’ed software, in fact this is the point of the license. The only condition is the software remains licensed under GPL or a similar license. That receivers in your end receive the same benefits that you had, is a key component of what is usually referred to as copyleft.

There’s nothing wrong with charging money for the redistribution of this code either. Noone says anybody should provide stuff for free, just because it is GPL’ed “free” software. What the freedom in “free software” means is that anyone who obtains the code also remains at liberty to redistribute the GPL’ed code and charge for it too, if he or she wishes to do so. We all have expenses, and there are all kinds of good reasons to ask money for the time and work we put into providing a service or a product to someone else.

The tricky thing is, that since users who buy a piece of GPL’ed software also has the full right to redistribute that software, the business model appears to be broken. It may not actually be broken, since there are many good reasons to pay to receive benefits with the software “purchased”. Someone who obtains a piece of GPL’ed software via a bittorrent network, won’t get the support and imminent future updates that someone who “bought” the software from the developer does. But if we toss this aside, that the business model appears broken is probably what leads some developers to pursue proprietary business models.

Now, there’s a perfect match between supply and demand in the users who wants new features and are willing to pay for them too, and the developers ready to supply new features. It appears pretty straightforward. It’s good for users and it’s good for developers, who make a living from what they do. Right? Wrong.

The advantage of using GPL or any other copyleft strategy is that the process of redistribution and refinement can easily be facilitated. If or when a useful feature is included in a version of the code, it can be adopted by the source developer or anybody else involved, so that everybody gains, whether they charge for it to others or not. It can facilitate the creation of a community around “the project”. The software is improved by community developers, and eventually the code or project may leverage much more than any individual developer is capable of.

If you use a proprietary model as a developer you’re shutting others out. As a proprietary developer you have to build your entire organization around the fact that all problems must be solved in-house or paid for. You’re in the business of constructing a costly operation, which must be paid for. In contrast, the free software developer may not have a great income from his work (someone in the linked discussion said he had received 50$ in donations at 20.000 downloads), but also has few expenses and obligations. Once a website has been set up, he can begin to facilitate the distribution and development of his project because it is GPL’ed. This of course doesn’t do it alone, but if it isn’t out there, it won’t be used and improved upon (for free) at all. If an open source developer has 20.000 downloads, it means his work is popular and things are working out. He ought to wake up and find a way to leverage all that traffic and interest to create even better software, which will attract even more users and reach even greater markets. I find open source developers are typically not very good at this, and there are no easy recipes for how to make it work.

My point is, however, that even while it may not seem so at the surface level, you’re in a much worse position as a proprietary developer, than the open source and free software hobbyist, who is capable of inviting global input and value to his work by using the GPL and has very few expenses doing so.

Now, what about the user? At a first glance, users get what they want, a theme or plugin of their choice and style. But the price they pay is not simply the money changing hands. They also become dependant on a company or a particular developer to provide for them the code and support they want. If the user becomes dissatisfied with the company’s service or the company goes bankrupt, or if the developer decides to go his own way leaving the product and it’s users behind, few will relate enough to the product to be able to pick up where he left. If a piece of code has had 20.000 downloads globally, it becomes a lot easier to find someone, for whom this piece of work is not just a strange mess. But it is also possible, for a user who can’t find somebody to help him, to dive into the code himself and learn to solve problems and create new features, and then redistribute his work.

I’m really great with developers selling their work, but I believe they’re shooting themselves in their feet, if they use GPL’ed software in the first place as a platform or market, and then do not use the powerful legal tools at their disposal in the GPL and other free licenses, to leverage the reach and further refinement of what they do. And I believe users who are too impatient with open source communities and hobbyist free software developers and pay for themes and plugins help trap themselves and their developers in closed circles, which will lead them nowhere while the open communities grow stronger. There’s a real danger however, that great developer talent will wind up in these kinds of dead-end relationships, which doesn’t expose their projects to the open scrutiny of global free software communities. There’s also a real danger that open source software projects won’t spawn the businesses and startups they need, in order to create thriving communities and cultivate collaborative efforts to create even better architectures for facilitating the development of great free software. This may happen if developers and startups decline from using the GPL or other copyleft strategies, out of the misunderstanding and fear that they can’t make money on something which is “free”.

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Lessig, the Abolition Movement and the Wicked Problems We Face

Stumbled over this very thoughtful interview by Charlie Rose with Stanford professor, Creative Commons founder, copyright reformer and Change Congress-initiator Lawrence Lessig (via Lessig’s Blog) :

Lessig has some very interesting remarks re: his meeting with Barack Obama years ago, where Lessig encouraged Obama to seek public office. According to Lessig, Obama responded, “you know, Larry, guys like me don’t make it in public service like that”. Obama presumably felt politics would demand too great compromise, than he felt he was able to give. Seems like he changed his mind. Here’s fingers crossed he’ll have some success in changing that game.

On another interesting note, Rose asks Lessig if he has any concerns in regard to filesharing and what’s happening in ‘free culture’, if he’s to take the perspective of ‘the other side’, i.e. the entertainment industry and MPAA intellectual property lobbyists. His answer is thoughtful and enlightening. Lessig fears, he says, the extent to which the reactionary and draconian IP legislation has created such resistance to copyright law, that the new generation – or a substantial segment of the new generation, will simply abolish copyright law altogether – just get rid of it :

Lessig : I think there is a real risk, because of the growing – I think of it as a kind of abolitionist movement with copyright. People who think that copyright was a great system for the 20th century, but we just need to get rid of it now. It’s not doing any good now, it’s not necessary, let’s just abolish it. Well, I am not an abolitionist. I believe copyright is essential in the digital age. I think we have to find a way to make it sensible in the digital age, but we have a richer, more diverse culture with it than we would without it. But my real fear is that the last ten years has unleashed a kind of revolutionary attitude among the generation that will take over in ten years and it’ll be hard for them to distinguish between sensible copyright legislation and the kind that we’ve got right now. So my real fear is we’re gonna lose control of this animal. Not in the sense, that we’re trying to guide it, but in the sense that we’re creating an environment where we can really have rich, diverse culture. So in this sense I feel like I’m Gorbachyov, not Yeltsin, I’m like an old communist who’s just trying to preserve..

Rose : (laughs) – who’s not gonna let go of everything…

Lessig : Yes exactly right. They just wanted to reform it, to make it make sense.

Rose : But can you do that, I mean?

Lessig : Gorbachyov couldn’t. So I don’t know. But that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid we’re gonna destroy something important. Because the thing copyright does, when it works well, is it’s very democratic. It gives the artist an independent ability to create. He doesn’t have to worry about his patron, supporting his kind of creativity. He can create on his own. And he creates on his own, and he owns what he creates.

Lessig emphasizes the importance of businesses to understand, harness and protect creative communities, like a Yahoo does in ‘securing’ the community of Flickr and the built-in ability of that community to use Creative Commons licensing of their images, or a Google does in similar ways with Picasa.

However, on this occasion as on others Lessig fails to enlighten us on what good copyright does us, when businesses vigorously seek to uphold IP rights in software. Google may harness the creative community of Picasa and enable free licensing within their software and as long as it provides value to their business, but what about the rights of Googlers, whose entire creative work by contract ends up being owned by Google, not by themselves? What good does it do us as a society, that companies benignly builds in free licensing, if, when and where they choose to do so, but seek to uphold IP barriers for users to change the actual software they use daily and operate on their own machines? Does that make us more free as a society, or less free? Does it give us a more diverse or less diverse culture?

Wouldn’t it be better, for transparency, for competition, for our culture of understanding and sharing; for our die hard focus on what’s really at stake; the big problems and big challenges we face as a global community : poverty, disease, pollution and international, armed conflict – to abolish a system, which systematically gets in the way of solving problems we face and which we need to solve? Which systematically gets in the way of enabling us to work together to help share information to crack the hard problems facing all of us? In what way is it democratic for a western author to deny the unauthorized distribution of his audiobook in a third-world country? In what ways do the distribution of Lord of the Rings (itself based on another work of fiction) via p2p networks harm anyone in this culture or another?

Lessig have always been careful not to associate himself with the pro-piracy movement. In 2006 a very nervous Morten Blaabjerg met briefly with Lessig to conduct an interview for a film project. Lessig was then visiting Denmark on the occasion of the official launch of the set of Danish-context adapted Creative Commons licenses.

Among the things I asked Lessig about in this interview was his attitude to what was then happening in Sweden, the police raid on the Pirate Bay. Lessig responded :

The Pirate Party and the people behind it are extraordinarily sophisticated, and this most recent post, a speech at the Reboot conference, called The Grey Commons, is an extremely sophisticated analysis of the problems.

In America, in my view, it’s counterproductive to encourage something called quote ‘piracy’. And the reason it’s counterproductive, is that if that’s what you push, then people stop listening to your argument, because they think that it’s all about, you just wanna be able to get something for free. And, if they stop thinking about the argument, then we’re not gonna make any real progress. So in America, I think this would be a bad strategy, and in fact, I’ve come to regret my role in certain lawsuits, that have gone to the supreme court, defending the right of peer-to-peer filesharing. Not because I don’t believe in the right of peer-to-peer filesharing, but because, as a strategic or even tactical move, focusing on that activity causes more confusion, than it causes understanding.

Now it could be, certainly could be different in Sweden and in Denmark.

There’s a long way from Lessig’s warning to ‘talk of piracy’ as a ‘bad strategic move’ to his talking with Charlie Rose about an ‘abolitionist movement’. This goes to say a lot about what has happened during the last 2-4 years. Use of bittorrent has been and is rapidly expanding, some of this no doubt due to the publicity surrounding the Pirate Bay. What’s more important, IMHO, is that social networking have become near mainstream, as a recent local television story about Facebook, in which I participated, made totally clear. Apparently, the popularity of Facebook among the +45 years old is a lot greater than people usually think. The sharing practices of these social networks have made copyright concerns a lot less practical. If I want to share photos with my friends, why bother thinking about copyright? Why bother about what they do with those photos? Why protect us against who they’re going to show them to, if they will make money on it or not, or whatever protectionist concern there may be. If you put it out there, it’s beyond you and your control. With or without copyright. It hardly makes any difference, as the ability of law enforcement to actually crack down on these sharing practices, is inefficient and good for nothing.

The only problem remains that services, such as Facebook or Google, seek to retain all rights to their users’ activities and information. This creates great problems for users, if they wish to ‘take out’ information and use it elsewhere. The loss of freedom lies not in the architecture, but the inability to help change those architectures, so that users may take their data where they’d like to go, in what ways they’d like to do so. To create a free and culturally diverse online environment, we need not protect ourselves from the use of ‘our data’, but from the entrapment of ‘our data’ in systems beyond our control. We can wait until doomsday for such companies to embrace the GPL. It’s not likely to happen. Our focus should not be the data, on ‘works of art’ – it should be on the systems which enable us to transport data, enable us to work together, share information and solve problems. Right now IP is used to prohibit or make this harder, as it is used to protect software and software companies and their incumbent business models – not the creativity of individual ‘artists’. This is why it is enlightening to read about the open source business strategies of companies such as Sun Microsystems and others. There are other ways to go. Abolition or not-abolition is not really the question. It doesn’t really matter, in so far as just discussing it doesn’t improve our architectures of communication or our problem solving capabilities. Embracing free software now does. Embracing Wikipedia now does. Embracing copyleft licensing does. Embracing tools of sharing, aggregation and open publishing does. Showing the effects of what you do does. Theory doesn’t. Fighting over legal matters doesn’t. Arguing back and forth about abolition of copyright with someone somewhere who doesn’t understand what you’re talking about (and doesn’t care to either) doesn’t.

P2p filesharing is the hope that we can create and maintain architectures of data transportation beyond centralized control. That we can reach out on our own, to reach others and understand each other. That other someone chose to share that particular movie, book or piece of software with us, which might or might not otherwise have reached us via different channels. That particular movie, book or software today – tomorrow something else of great importance. The channels of distribution are not really that interesting, except if your business model depends on measuring numbers of eyeballs, so that you may cash in on the commercials broadcast to these numbers of eyeballs. That’s what seems to be the concern of IP holders. Not to harness creativity, not to nurture a rich, diverse cultural landscape, but to protect incumbent business models, which stands in the way of creating and improving our decentralized methods of data and information sharing.

What’s interesting and what’s at stake is far more important than creating a culturally diverse environment : it’s about saving lives, about enabling us to live together peacefully and take a deep look at the world we’re in and imagine, what kind of place this could be, if we treated it with the same kind of generosity, as it treats us with.

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Barack Obama : Technology Empowers People

We believe that real change can only come from the bottom up. And technology empowers people to come together to make that change. —Barack Obama, speech at Google, Nov. 14th 2007.

What’s at stake in this election

I believe this US presidential election is a matter of grave importance, not just to the US but perhaps even more so to the rest of the world. First, the American leadership sets an example for the world. The damages caused by the one set by the administration headed by George W. Bush is best scrutinized in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. We need new leadership, a new vision and new examples to be set. We need a US president who can deliver this.

Second, the American economy influences the world’s economy. When a global economic power sinks into the bottomless financial pit of a brutal war of aggression, it not only sets a bad example for other nations, including Russia and all kinds of dictatorships, it also cannot help but bode ill for the world’s economy. We need a strong US economy, or at least a US economy which is capable of dealing with the challenges facing the United States internally, in order to lift the more serious challenges we face, such as world poverty and hunger and threats to our environment posed by our lifestyle and consumption patterns.

Third, and this is where we need real leadership, and real change, is to straighten out global priorities in the way the internet is, can and will be used. In particular, the US leadership is important in what is sometimes called ‘intellectual property law’. We need to stilt the draconian IP laws enacted in the US (I’m talking about the DMCA and similar legislation, if anyone should be in doubt). We need to stop these laws from becoming even more draconian, and we need to ultimately push them back. What’s at stake is hinted at in Lawrence Lessig’s marvelous book Free Culture, but isn’t limited to the remixing of music videos and animations – it’s our problem-solving capabilities which are at stake. Our ability to make good decisions based on trustworthy information, processed and exchanged freely using the internet, on a global scale, is at stake. If the US technology sector cannot lead the way because of the draconian American IP legislation, it will be a poorer world, and the struggle to get there will be harder and fraught with greater difficulties.

Barack Obama is now following you on Twitter!

As I am not American, unfortunately I can’t vote in the US presidential election taking place tomorrow. If I could I’d have no doubts. I’d vote for Obama. Not because he necessarily stand for and will enact all the things that I hope for the world, but because I think he will enact the kind of leadership, which sets an example and will facilitate the changes we need.

I have not been following the course of Barack Obama very closely, but even from a long distance he’s been able to make an impression. All thanks to the wonderful powers of the internet, which he’s utilized in his campaign with such intelligence and vitality. It made an impression when he followed me back on Twitter. Him or his campaign staff, either way, it’s an attention to detail which impresses. Coming from someone I respected and consider of high integrity, it also made a great impression on me reading Marc Andreessen’s personal account of a meeting with Obama. What impressed me in Andreessens account is the way Obama listened rather than talked, a characteristic which I felt showed his genuine interest in the problems presented to him. And lastly, he gained great respect in my book for appearing so genuinely as himself on the Daily Show and being able to stand up to the jokes of Jon Stewart in such as relaxed manner.

Lately I’ve been reading up on Obama’s tech policies, and the one thing I note with the greatest clarity is his emphasis on what can be done in America, in order to lift not only America, but also the challenges we face globally.

Seizing the moment : Obama’s speech at Google

Obama spoke last year (November 14th 2007) at Google’s HQ in Mountain View about his technology and innovation program. Watching this video of his speech I found I learned a great deal about Obama – and not just about his views on technology. If you haven’t had a chance to see this before, please join me here :

I took some time out to transcribe Obama’s entire speech below. It’s one of those speeches which apparently is not included in any of the official lists. Most blogs quote his technology policy press release, but I find it illuminating to read the words he actually used speaking at Google, and I learned a great deal about him in the process of transcribing his words. It’s a great speech, and one that resonates greatly with me.

Full transcript of Obama’s speech

When you start to think about it, there is something improbable about this gathering. Afterall it wasn’t much more than a decade ago that Larry and Sergei got together in a dormroom as graduate students with a big idea to organize all of the world’s information into an accessible form. And at the time I was a [novice? Illinois?] state senator, doing my best to help people get a better shot at their dreams.

What we shared is a belief in changing the world from the bottom up, not the top down. That a bunch of.. that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. We shared that, and we also shared a bunch of student loans that still needed to be paid off. (laughter) And you would have found it hard to predict that Larry and Sergei would now be the co-founders of one of the most successful companies in recent history. And that I would be standing on this stage today as a candidate for president of the United States.

But this is where improbable journeys have led. This is where the moment finds us. And I’d like to say a few words about what I believe we have to do together, to seize this moment with a sense of purpose and a sense of urgency.

We know how the first chapters of the Google story have turned out. Afterall, all of you have good jobs. But we also know that the Google story is more than just being about the bottom line. It’s about seeing what we can accomplish when we believe in things that are unseen. When we take the measure of our changing times and we take action to shape them. And that’s why we’re here today. That’s why many of you decided to work here instead of somewhere else.

Technology and innovation have reshaped our economy and our lives at breathtaking speed. America’s been fighting to figure out how to tap this awesome new ressource we have. And Google’s helped to show us the way. But the story is far from over. Google’s story is far from over. The story about how we shape our changing times is far from over. What comes next depends on the choices that we make right now, at this moment, in this election.

We could see the spirit of innovation that started this company be stifled. We could see the internet divided up to the highest bidders. We could see a government that uses technology to shut people out, instead of letting them in. Tax breaks shuffled to special interests, while the next startup, the next Google can’t get a fair shot. Challenges like health care and energy that hold our country back while competition from other nations picks up. That’s one alternative.

Another alternative is for us to unlock a new future of opportunity. Together we could open up the government and invite all citizens in, while connecting all of America to 21st century broadband. We could use technology to help achieve universal health care. To reach for a clean energy future. And to ensure that young Americans can compete and win in the global economy.

If America recommits itself to science and innovation then we can lead the world to a new future of productivity and prosperity.

That’s what we can do if we seize this moment. That’s the choice we face.

As president, I intend to work with you to write the next chapter in the story of American innovation. That’s part of the reason why I’m running for president of the United States.

To seize this moment we have to ensure free and full exchange of information. And that starts with an open internet. (applause) I will take a backseat to noone in my commitment to network neutrality. Because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. The internet is perhaps the most open network in history and we have to keep it that way.

To seize this moment, we have to connect all of America to 21st century infrastructure. As president, I will set a goal of ensuring that every American has broadband access, no matter where you live, no matter how much money you have or don’t have. We will raise the standards for broadband speed. We will connect schools and libraries and hospitals. We will take on the special interests so that we can finally unleash the power of wireless spectrum for our safety, our security and our connectivity.

To seize this moment, we have to use technology to open up our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our history has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight. As president, I’m gonna change that. We will put government data online in universally accessible formats. (applause) I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts, earmarks and lobbying contracts. I’ll let you participate in government forums, ask questions, in realtime, offer suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are made. And let you comment on legislation before it is signed. And to ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer to coordinate and make certain that we are always at the forefront of technology and that we are incorporating it into every decision that we make. (applause)

And if you wanna know how I’ll govern, just look at our campaign. We received over 370.000 donations online, half of which have been under 25 dollars. Nearly 300.000 Americans have their own accounts on Barackobama.com. They’ve created thousands of grassroots groups. They’ve offered up over 15.000 policy ideas. Because we believe that real change can only come from the bottom up. And technology empowers people to come together to make that change.

Because at this moment I think we have to do more than get our house in order. The opportunity in front of us is bigger than that. Seizing this opportunity is gonna depend on more than what the government does or even what the technology sector does. It’s gonna depend on how together we harness technology to confront the biggest challenges that America faces.

Just imagine what we could do. If we commit ourselves to electronic medical records, then we can lift up the quality of health care and reduce error at dramatically lower costs. (applause) If we take on special interests and make aggressive investments in clean and renewable energy, like Google’s done with solar here in Mountain View, then we can end our addiction to oil, create millions of jobs, and save the planet in the bargain.

If we make technological literacy a fundamental part of education, then we can give our children the skills they need to compete and ensure the next generation of scientists and engineers as being educated right here in America.

We can do this, but we can’t wait. Because Silicon Valley is not the only corner of innovation in the world. If America doesn’t seize this moment, then we will face only more competition from Dubai and Dublin, from Shanghai and Mumbai. So instead of George Bush’s policy of undermining science, I intend to double federal funding for basic research and make the RND tax credit permanent. (applause) To keep the door open for the next generation of startups, I will enforce tough antitrust laws. And to ensure that America continues to attract the worlds’ best and brightest, we need comprehensive immigration reform, that strengthens permanent residence VISA’s like the H1B program.

We need to make sure that the next success story, the next Google, happens here, in America. The Google story is about what can be achieved when we cultivate new ideas and keep the playing field level for new businesses. But it’s also about not settling for what we’ve already achieved. It’s about constantly raising the barr, so that we’re more competitive, and so that we use technology to reach ever expanding horizons.

You know, the first time I was back here, in 2004, Larry showed me the image that tracks all the internet searches taking place in the world. I wrote about this in my book. I saw the Earth rotating on a flat panel monitor with the different lights for different languages marking all of the traffic on this wondrous network, a network, that didn’t even exist when almost all of us here were born. (laughter) Almost.

But what struck me wasn’t the light on that globe. It was the darkness. Most of Africa, chunks of Asia, even parts of the United States. The disconnected corners of our interconnected world. Where the promise of the 21st century is being eclipsed by peril. You and I must not settle for anything less than an America that replaces that darkness with a new light.

Because the promise and prosperity of a new economy must not be the property of the few.

It must be a force that lifts up our entire country and ultimately lifts up the entire world. (applause) We have the privilege to live in a transformational moment. A moment when an idea can change the world. A moment when technology empowers us to come together as never before, while letting each of us reach for our own individual dreams. A moment when we can finally progress and move beyond the huge challenges that have stood in the way of progress for far too long.

We can not and we must not look back and regret that we settled for anything less. And that’s why I’m asking you to join me in seizing this moment. I’m asking you to join me in changing the world. Thank you very much everybody. Thank you. (drowning in standing ovations)

Interview : Break the fever of fear

Obama’s speech is followed in the video with an insightful, relaxed and entertaining on stage interview hosted by Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In this interview Obama talks very open-heartedly about why he’s running for president in the first place, and why he’s running now. He’s also asked how he will actually end the war in Iraq, if he presumably takes office. As most will know, Obama opposed the war in Iraq. This speech from 2002 against the war in Iraq is well worth another read.

Obama sums up his foreign policy with the French president Sarkozy’s words, to “be more liked”. Meaning, that if the US is more respected and recognized for it’s diplomatic efforts, it will be easier to build up trust which enables problem-solving and diplomatic solutions and harder to create mistrust against Americans. Obama will “break the fever of fear” which has been exploited by the Bush administration to instill fear and distrust :

We’re told to be afraid of terrorists, of immigrants.. and each other … Our values are distorted .. not being certain if simulated drownings are really torture… That’s not who we are, as Americans. Sometimes I’m accused of being this progressive, far-out… – I’m conservative, in the sense that I want us to get back to those values that were essential to building America.

I sincerely hope he succeeds.

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The Grey Zone of Syndication

As I mentioned in an earlier post, syndicating stuff is also one huge grey area of legal hazzle. Stumbled over this discussion from a couple of years back (as well as this one), which airs not at all uncommon concerns. You risk being called a scraper, a spammer and a splogger, if you pursue the path of syndication.

Pariah S. Burke wrote :

RSS feeds are published for individual, private consumption; they are not a blanket license to, or waiver of, reprint rights. Taking and republshing content—no matter how much or how little—without the original author’s permission is a violation of U.S. and international Copyright laws. There are exceptions, of course, detailed in the Fair Use doctrine, but such exceptions are very specific and do not apply to the vast majority of sites using FeedWordPress, Autoblog, and the like. In fact, Charles Johnson, the creator of FeedWordPress is in constant and frequent violation of copyright law because the apparent majority of his blog’s content is stolen without the original authors’ permission.

In that case, Google, which enables users to very easily tag and share (i.e. republish) feeds they find interesting via their popular service Google Reader, is guilty of same said constant and frequent violation of copyright law, or at least, in willful and assisting infringement. The same of course goes for YouTube and any web service, which allows anyone to embed their videos, images and games on your own local site.

Who says a tool has to be used in one way only? Let’s get creative! That’s how problems are solved and new business models are developed!

Here’s another POV, from a guide on setting up an automatic blog which automatically generates a ‘shitload of traffic’ and is ‘just about hands free’ :

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of people scraping content that people have sweated over. However, one thing I don’t mind doing is thieving from thieves.

You’re on the hunt for “disposable” content – generally not text based. Think along the lines of Flash games, funny videos, funny pictures, hypnomagical-optical-illusions – that kind of thing. The Internet is awash with blogs that showcase this stuff. Check out Google blogsearch and try a search like funny pictures blog. There’s hundreds of the leeching bastards showcasing other peoples pictures, videos, games and hypnomagical-optical-illusions for their website. They can hardly call it “their” content. With this ethical pebble tossed aside, we can go and grab some content.

There’s loads of ways you can hunt down potential content. You’re on the lookout for RSS feeds with this rich media. So you could try; Google Blogsearch, Technorati, MyBlogLog – basically any site that lets you search the blogosphere.

My personal point of view (this is also Kaplak’s stand) is that the problem of visibility for sites and products is larger than the largely fictional problem of “theft”. If you make syndicated feeds publicly available, you implicitly want and ask for syndication, because you want your message out. Syndication will help your site or product become visible in places and contexts it would not otherwise be seen in, and that’s why you use it and why you should use it. If you do not want your message out in other contexts and do not want to see your articles appear on other websites in a syndicated format, you can simply choose not to make articles available for syndication. The benefits however, in the Google Juice and traffic which syndication brings back to your sites and products, are in most cases much greater than the disadvantages.

Accusing syndication sites and services for theft and copyright infringement is IMHO ridiculous at best, as these services actually help your site become seen and achieve better rankings in search engines. It helps your interested readers and users find you in the first place. And if you don’t want to be read – why publish to the web?

At worst, these allegations are harmful, as they instill an atmosphere of fear and create distrust of using RSS, feeds and aggregation tools. Instead, we need to urge and encourage syndication and use of syndicated feeds, as it enables rich web contexts, which would otherwise not be possible, and makes it easier to direct interest and relevant traffic to sites and subjects of interest. It is above all a tool, which can be used for our mutual benefits – or for spamming and creating yet more “get rich quick” mentality kind of sites filled with stuff the world could care less about (but apparently doesn’t). I am of the opinion that these types of sites may provide their owners with short-term rewards, but ultimately will fade to authentic sites of much stronger lasting value. How to build lasting value, and help these sites and products build lasting value, is what we’re interested in here.

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GDrive filesharing?

Presently, Kaplak has a need for an internal, simple yet powerful online file sharing utility. We’re talking about simple intranet stuff, but without the complexity of setting up an intranet. We don’t need an intranet. We need to read and save documents and spreadsheets.

We can get it now with Gmail and the Gmail Drive Shell extension by Bjarke Viksøe. As a hack, this extension has some limitations, but it is a great temporary solution. I wondered if we’d be able to search through attachments, but alas, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

They should do that had an interesting article from two years back discussing the extension of Gmail into an attachments browsing utility, which I roughly translate into a storage & sharing facility for attachments – also known as files. This is essentially a simple filesharing movement building out of Gmail, building on the simple needs of people with free storage on their hands.

It should be obvious the need is there. This is simply the most needed functionality for lots of people and businesses. Forget the Google Apps, Google Groups or Google Sites. We need a GDrive, a simple place to place stuff, where people we work with can get it and upload their stuff too. No profiles, no more social networks or group functionality, we have lots of that – simply storage available for simple filesharing.

I can think of one reason Google won’t move down that alley, and that’s fear of intellectual property problems and the threats of litigation costs etc. The same reason why Google Books never took off, and why most books are not fully readable or available to non-US residents. Why “snippets”?

Well, that ought to leave this window of opportunity open to others, but noone has the power of the Gmail apparatus already in place.

Another reason might be the risk of undermining Google’s own business in intranet and local search for businesses, as well as their Groups and Apps product ranges. But as Google earns most of the company’s revenue from advertising (including ads in Gmail), this should be a small camel to swallow.

Thanks for the tip about GDrive to Anders! (Anders Nicolaisen and Jesper Lund have recently joined the Kaplak Team – a formal introduction will follow shortly :-) )

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Google Torrent Search

As some readers will be aware, earlier this month a Danish court ordered the Internet Service Provider Tele2 to block it’s users’ access to the bittorrent-sharing site The Pirate Bay. Mike Masnick sums it up pretty well.

One may very well wonder (as Masnick does too), if The Pirate Bay, which is essentially a search engine and consists of nothing but metadata, should be blocked, other search engines where one may find torrent-files leading to copyright-infringing material ought to be blocked too. Now Mikkel DeMib Svendsen, renowned Danish SEO-expert, internet entrepreneur and columnist, has responded in kind, to illustrate precisely this point. His column is available here, in Danish only, but his point transcends all languages.

Torrent Search is simply a custom search engine built using Google’s own tools, which trawls all of Google’s index for torrent files. DeMib’s point being of course to illustrate the absurdity of the block and of the court’s findings. If The Pirate Bay should be blocked, so should Google. And so should every other search engine or index of metadata, which allows one to find hyperlinks to material, which someone deems infringing on someone’s copyrights.

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Happy Holidays

I found this classic Disney cartoon on YouTube, which is a wonderful source for videos like this; short, classics, fun. It will no doubt later be removed by the YouTube admins at the request of the copyright owners, as I’ve experienced it countless times before with this kind of material, so enjoy it while you can. Thankfully, fans never cease to upload new versions of videos like this again later.

Let me take this opportunity to take a quick look at the landscape we meet today as cultural niche producers.

The merits of metadata

One of the great merits of YouTube has been to blur and erode the sharp distinctions of copyright on the internet. When I post the video above on this blog, the material is nowhere near the webservers, which host this site. It is all orchestrated by metadata, passing between our site, your computer and YouTube. Before YouTube, most would be very careful about posting a video like this on a website. Now, few would object to it. Piracy, as the entertainment industry defines it, has moved from underground p2p networks into the broad open.

Bittorrent index-sites such as The Pirate Bay has found the orchestration of metadata to be a powerful blow against the forces, who want to keep cultural distribution the way it’s always been. The torrent-files of the bittorrent protocol contain only metadata, which can be freely published and copied by anyone. The metadata consists of pointers to material on the user’s computers, exchanged only with other computers which ask for access to the material, using the client software, which reads the information contained in the torrents and takes care of orchestrating the traffic of the real data.

Thus, with their emphasis on metadata, services such as YouTube and decentralized distribution tools such as bittorrent has made it easy to distribute popular material without being hampered too much by copyright concerns. Finding this kind of stuff is easy, simply search for it, using the sites’ own built-in search mechanisms, or a general web search engine such as Google.

But it is not so easy, if you’re either looking for a product or material, which is less popular, or if you are a producer of a niche product looking for a solution to solve your distribution problems. First, you can only search for what you know about, and you must actively perform a search for it. Second, the niche producer must perform a great effort to make you as a customer “know” his product before you can search for it.

Google’s Ads

There are two solutions to this problem so far. The first is to use mass media-like advertising, on the web (banner ads) or in other media. The second is to use more direct marketing tools. In the latter category, Google has sought to refine current solutions elegantly, with their Google Ads offering. In short, Google’s ad program couples advertisers’ keywords (Adwords) with users’ searches as well as websites signing up for the ads (Adsense). This means that Google’s ads (theoretically) become far more meaningful to the user (actively searching for information), than the dumb banner ads meeting every visitor on the same site, without differentiating between those interested and those who aren’t.

We’ll take a closer look at Google’s ad services at a later stage, but it is worth noting just a few things about their model. It presumes, that “search” is the way people find information on the web. It presumes that the web consists of meaningful, differentiated entities called websites. It is difficult to see, if the model is capable of differentiating between different types of products, or if it treats all the same. The model is good for niche products, in the sense that it reaches the users, who actively search for information about them. The obvious drawback for the niche producer is that he or she will have to pay up front, before any product has been sold (pay per click/view), and that he or she will have to invest a lot of time in creating and administrating a website and a payment system, in order to ‘monetize’ the traffic the ads bring in.

Bittorrent

Bittorrent provides a brilliant, decentralized distribution method, but it comes without tools to make products seen or charged for, which makes it less of an ideal solution, unless matched with other methods to create visibility and earn money (from traffic, for instance).

Bittorrent is a peer-to-peer technology, which allocates resources on a p2p network very effectively, by utilizing locally excess bandwidth and harddrive space. But, just as no method exists to charge for access, no method exists to provide incentive to continually host and seed files, especially files, which are less commonly in demand. This means, that while bittorrent is an effective, decentralized method of distributing large files, most torrents, which are less than popular, become “dead”, once the initial interest has faded. This leaves later peers emptyhanded and with no obvious way to obtain the material. Additionally, the bittorrent index-sites inherit the notion of “search” as the key to finding information. This means, that niche torrents are even harder off, as no method exists within the bittorrent model to make torrents more or less visible or known by peers, to make them able to search for them. Of course, if one utilizes bittorrent as a distribution model, one could easily match bittorrent with Google’s ad offerings. But this, then, leaves a producer with only expenditure, no income method, apart from what Adsense or other sideshow-income streams may pay.

For p2p networks, step one may have been to come out in the open, to publicize these vast indexes of mostly copyrighted material openly on the web. Now, step two must be to start finding ways to make it easy to utilize p2p networks as proper distribution channels.

In each their ways, these two examples contribute pieces to an image facing an online niche distributor, of which the key challenges are visibility and financing. The first installment of Kaplak will seek to answer these two challenges before others. What do you think? What are the primary challenges meeting you, as a niche producer using the internet?

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