Two months ago, at a Los Angeles dinner party, AOL Vice President Jason Calacanis found himself seated next to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. The two talked about the emerging culture of Web2.0, the changes in copyright and ownership, and – this has been a particular topic of concern for Wales over the past months – what kinds of copyrights Wales would purchase and place into the public domain if he had a spare hundred million dollars. Wales doesn’t have this kind of money (Wikipedia relies on donations from its grateful users to keep its servers up and running) but lately he’s been very publicly asking this “What if?” question.
Calacanis had a quick come-back. “If you just put a banner ad on the front page of Wikipedia,” he said, “you’d be able to earn a hundred million dollars a year.” Wikipedia, as the 15th most-visited site on the Web, could easily earn the type of advertising revenue that Google, Yahoo!, MSN and only a few others generate. Although Wales reacted to the suggestion with a mixture of shock and horror, Calacanis pressed his point. “C’mon, Jimmy, you’re just leaving that money on the table! Heck, let me do it, and AOL will give you the hundred million dollars – every year! Imagine what kind of copyrights you could purchase with that kind of money!”
Calacanis blogged this conversation later, wholly enjoying his Mephistophelian role, while blithely ignoring the ethical implications of his offer to Wales. If Wales owned Wikipedia – owned the copyrights, the site, the servers, the infrastructure, the employees, etc. – he could accept Calacanis’ temping offer. But that choice is not Wales’ to make, because the ownership of Wikipedia does not fit neatly into any category of property thus far constituted. Wikipedia articles are published under a Creative Commons license: this means that anyone can use them freely for non-commercial purposes. It also means that all contributors freely surrender the commercial rights to their work. Yet Wikipedia does not suffer from the “tragedy of the commons.” Wikipedia is not the kind of resource that can be exhausted when too many people try to use it. Quite the opposite: as more people use and contribute to Wikipedia, the more valuable it becomes to all its users. The commons is an essential feature of Wikipedia’s success, and that success forever places it outside of the commercial mechanisms which Calacanis advocates. The suggestion of placing advertising in Wikipedia, while immensely attractive, also amounts to a category error. It means you’ve so completely missed the point you might as well be speaking another language.
People who don’t fight over anything else do fight over money. Money (particularly in the United States) is so fraught, so overloaded with meaning, that it nearly always evokes some sort of neurotic reaction. Money means survival. Money means freedom. Money means choice. It may not buy happiness, but, as Mae West once remarked, “I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich, and rich is better.” Money is so intensely evocative that we have been forced to develop elaborate and relatively fool-proof systems to handle it. Banks and other financial institutions exist precisely because people are rarely rational with their own money: these institutions serve as the collective superego we employ when confronted with choices about money. That these institutions – such as BCCI, or Arthur Andersen – periodically abandon these principles in the pursuit of profit indicates the huge gravitational strength of wealth.
Social scientists and neuropsychologists have recently begun to test the human drive to wealth. One of the most significant findings – released just a few months ago – indicates that we each have an innate sense of fairness in every financial transaction, and we’re more than willing to walk away from a transaction which we deem unfair. Furthermore, we’re willing to punish others for perpetrating those transactions. This cognitive “center of fairness” is one of the last areas of the brain to develop fully – it marks the final stage of adulthood, appearing reliably in adults after about age 22. This means our sense of fairness draws upon many of the foundational cognitive structures of the brain, which help us to understand value, social ranking, need, and so forth. Only when these systems are in place can we develop a notion of fairness. And if any of these systems fail – as does happen, on occasion – psychologists can predict an individual’s descent into psychopathology. Being fair is perhaps our highest cognitive achievement as individuals, and thus – quite rightly – it is marked as the beginning of wisdom.
All of Western civilization balances between the unbounded desire for wealth and the curbing sense of fairness. Gordon Gekko proclaims, “Greed is good. Greed works,” and we nod in agreement, while at the same time we cheer as Enron founder Key Lay gets convicted for obeying Gekko’s dictates. Our civilizational schizophrenia about money naturally reflects our internal, psychological natures: an old part of our brains wishes to survive, and thrive, while a much newer part recognizes that the best chances for survival come through sharing our resources fairly. Even where the value of sharing can be conclusively demonstrated – as in the case of Wikipedia – the reptile-brain (in this case, wearing Jason Calacanis’ face) pokes on through, arguing that a resource conserved can be turned to great profit.
All of this means that as we acquire an ever-greater wealth of shared resources – Wikipedia is only one example – the pressure will constantly increase to earn a profit from them. We can no sooner abandon our reptile-brain instincts than we can stop breathing – indeed, they’re more closely correlated than most people realize. Instead, we must settle for the next best thing: a arrangement of contracts enforced by law (which carry the threat of the State) and social consensus (which carry the threat of ostracism). Neither technique is wholly up to the task, but together they will provide a stabilizing influence.
Sharing information carries its own costs and rewards. Much of the work of arbitrageurs draws from some “inside information,” which, were it widely known, would rectify the market inequity the arbitrageur profits from. Thus, there are some situations where sharing presents such a great threat to profit that the drive to fairness is effectively silenced. In most other situations, the sharing of information confers benefit both on the individual offering up the information and the community which receives the information. Individuals identified as experts in a particular area gain in social standing within their communities; this is a form of wealth in itself, and though less tangible than cash, should never be discounted. This social calculus serves as the foundation for many communities, and it is both delicate and constantly in flux: members in every social network are constantly jockeying for position by sharing, aggregating, or critiquing the information.
When the wealth of a community leaves that community – when it is committed to print, or licensed out a commercial organization – problems immediately arise. The first of these is the question of authorship: is the creator of the information being recognized as the author the work? If so, the social calculus of expertise expands into a new sphere. If not, it will feel like theft. Next comes the question of money: who profits from the work of another? Qui bono? If the host of the community takes the content generated by that community and realizes profit from that content, the creators of that content will immediately be afflicted with a number of conflicting feelings. Assuming that attribution has been passed along, there is no loss in social standing. But to see someone else making profit from work freely shared strikes at the very heart of fairness. More significantly, this problem will not be solved simply by offering content creators a license fee for their content. They’re not in it for the money. They are not professionals. Their motivations have everything to do with the sharing of expertise in a context that is all about social standing and not about commerce. Mixing these diametrically opposed influences will quickly result in a spiraling series of crises, leading inevitably to the collapse of the community, once its members realize that they’re being “ripped off.”
The only possible solution that would satisfy both the desire to share and the desire for profit relies on a persistent transparency of motives. The host must enter into a negotiated agreement with the members of the community which sets all ground rules for the use of community-generated content. Furthermore, these agreements must be negotiated on an individual basis, so that every participant in a community has the ability to opt-in or opt-out of the exterior financial arrangements of the community. This doesn’t make the situation any less fraught, because financial motives will still come into conflict with the intent of the community, but it does ensure that everyone understands and accepts the rules before they participate in the process of knowledge creation. That will go a long way toward keeping tempers cool when conflicts arise.
All of this conflict was predicted twenty five years ago by the iconoclastic Ted Nelson, the founding philosopher of hypertext. In his groundbreaking book Literary Machines, Nelson described a publishing system – “transclusion” – which preserved copyright for all content created on his global hypertext system (in Nelson’s case, Project Xanadu, rather than the World Wide Web, though they are nearly equivalent). When any user of Xanadu viewed a document – from whatever source – the system would note the owner of the copyright of that document, and credit them appropriately using a micropayment system. Xanadu preserved copyright and access to information. What Nelson did not foresee – emerging only after hypertext became widespread – are true peer-production systems, such as Wikipedia.
Although Wikipedia does record who created what, when, and where, this record is so richly threaded that nearly every significant article in Wikipedia has been subjected to countless revisions, additions and deletions. It is possible to know who created any article in Wikipedia, but it is also pointless. Wikipedia is contribution atomized, reduced down to words and phrases which, out of context, bear no value. Only in its collective whole does it have value; that value can not be licensed or sold without being viewed as the most obvious sort of theft. Projects which rely on peer-production inevitably come to resemble Wikipedia’s atomization of contribution. While this represents a legal and ethical minefield, making such systems nearly worthless commercially, it is also the surest metric of success. The more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. But that doesn’t mean you can sell it.