Civil vs. corporate peer production

With civil peer production I understand a project that is mostly staffed by unpaid voluntary contributors, or, if the contributors are paid, such payment is not directly related to the contributions.

For example, you can be paid as a researcher or teacher, or you can receive a pension and unemployment benefits, and use that ‘basic income’ to develop meaningful activities. Alternatively, NGO’s could allow some of their staff to freely contribute to commons-oriented projects (cfr. AKVO).

The key here, if we are to call it peer production, is that the payment is not conditionally related to the contributions, that these are not under a command relationship dependent on who is given you the income. It is my understanding that such form of peer production is often the basis of starting peer production projects. However, if it is acceptable that income received to sustain the contribution to the commons, what happens when a majority of contributors start to be paid through corporate salaries?

An important question is therefore: is the civil phase of peer production just a stage of peer production, with a tendency to become ‘corporate’?

In any case, I would argue that the more serious and lasting, and ambitious peer production projects, say Wikipedia, or Mozilla’s Firefox, are supported by for-benefit institutions, NGO’s or Foundations, that manage the overall infrastructure of cooperation, and have a core staff that supports the project.

If we look at free software and open source as instances of peer production, I think we can conclude here that the most successful projects tend to become ‘corporatized’. This can happen in two different ways. The project can be supported by a wide variety of entities, or by just one. It would seem that in the former case, such as Linux, no single company dominates the process, and some commentators have called this ‘organic’ open source.

By contrast, if it is dominated by a single entity, then the logic of cooperation would seem to be different, and in this case, say MySQL, it would be possible to argue that the contributions are so strategic to the company, that the work is likely to be directed, that the commons-oriented license is not totally free (or that larger parts of the software do not fall under it), and that it will have greater difficulty in drawing volunteers. This has been called non-organic or synthetic open source. Evidence suggests that it is much more difficult for non-organic open source to be successful, but that those projects that can draw on a diverse corporate support community are thriving (I get this from reading the above-linked analysis of organic open source).

In Oekonux, the distinction has been made between single free software, in which there is no open development but directed production, but a commons-oriented license; and doubly free software, where both conditions of voluntary contributions/open development process, coupled to the open license, are used simultaneously.

However, we must conclude that most successful peer production projects combine the usage of a volunteer community, a for-benefit institutions guaranteeing the perennity of the infrastructure of cooperation, and a ecology of businesses which in practice fund an increasingly large number of contributors. When these type of contributors become majoritarian, as in Linux, we have corporate peer production, when they are minor, as in Wikipedia, we have civil peer production.
A last hypothetical type of peer production, which I have not seen yet, is when paid government employees would create a commons, under non-directed conditions.

So to return to the original question: it would seem that it is inevitable that a institutionalization of peer production occurs, that this can happen through civil for benefit institutions, or through corporate support (and hypothetically, public support).

The reason for this in my opinion, is that peer production rests on a ladder of participation, with a core group of contributors, supported by a larger base of occasional contributors. But this essential core group, necessary for the survival of the project, cannot sustain itself without an income, and therefore, the original phase of indirect ‘happenstance’ income, ends up as being seen as unsustainable ‘in the long run’. To obtain more stable income, some form of institutional support becomes necessary, allowing members of the core to turn their ‘hobby’ and ‘vocation’, into a means oftheir own sustainability. Another hypothesis is that the very success of a project, automatically leads to an ecology of businesses practicing benefit-sharing and therefore end up co-supporting the commons from which they derivative value creation depend.

If such process is inevitable, then it becomes important to built in safeguards, so that the original characteristics of the project, i.e. voluntary contributions, participatory processes, and commons-oriented universal availability of the outcome, do not become ‘corrupted’ or undermined by the very process of obtaining such institutionalized, or ‘corporatized’ support.

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