By David Charles
This idea of taking back control is the same impulse that drives the open source hardware movement. Open source hardware is hardware whose designs are made publicly available for people to study, modify and use to build and sell products. It’s about empowering people with knowledge, rather than becoming dependent on the jealously guarded, patent-protected knowledge of closed corporations.
Tsvetan Usunov runs Olimex, a hardware company based in Bulgaria. They have made over six hundred products, of which about half have an open source hardware licence. “Where we can open the products, we do,” he says. Why on earth would he do that? Because, as Tsvetan says, open source hardware is important for communities, for customers – and for his business.
Open source hardware is important for communities because it allows people to understand how things work and to learn how to modify and make their own products. This is also why open source hardware is good for customers: it gives them independence from the manufacturers. Even if Olimex decide to stop producing a certain product, this will not hurt the customer because they can always take the open design and make the product themselves or hire someone else to make it for them. Everything is under the customer’s control and this helps to secure their business. Furthermore, if they don’t like how something is made, or where something is made, they can change it.
All these things are nice, community-orientated reasons for openness, but where’s the business benefit? For Tsvetan, building open source is actually a crucial element of his business model. “You have not just customers,” Tsvetan says, “but collaborators.” A Chinese competitor, inspired by Olimex, opened their designs as well. This is an extraordinary development; it is more common to hear of “protected” designs being stolen by Chinese companies and made more cheaply. Thanks to the principles of open source hardware, Olimex and this Chinese firm are no longer competitors, but collaborators. They will both benefit from the research, design and manufacturing they share. This reduces costs to both parties and, as Tsvetan says, “We both learn and build better products.”
Jan Suhr, one of the developers behind CryptoStick, tells us that open source is critically (and perhaps surprisingly) important for IT security products and software, to the extent that you should not trust any security product that is not open source. CryptoStick is an open source USB device designed to store encryption keys securely, so that people can send encrypted emails even when they are on an untrusted computer. The open source nature of the product means that its security is independently verifiable by anyone. It means that you can yourself guarantee there are no NSA “back doors” or security flaws. Its openness is the very guarantee of its security.
Fairness and Openness Together?
“The conclusion is that they’re not together yet,” Michel Bauwens says. “There are people who talk about openness, but not fairness; and people who talk about fairness, but not openness.”
For Michel, part of the problem is the conflict between labour and liberals, represented by the “open” and “free” movements. “Liberals only look at formal rights,” he says, “not the real conditions where those rights could be exercised.” He gives the example of Linux, which is distributed under a General Public licence (GPL), allowing full use of the commons to anyone. Unfortunately, this licence means that the Linux economy is almost entirely dominated by those with the resources to capitalise: seventy-five percent of the Linux economy is swallowed up by big companies like IBM and Redhat. This leads Michel to ask the question: “Can we have openness and at the same time a more equal economy?”
Michel’s proposal is both controversial and a bit complicated. The complication arises from an apparent contradiction: “The more commonistic the licence,” he says, “the more capitalistic the practice.” As we have seen, the result of the entirely commons-based GPL is domination by big corporations. The same, Michel says, is true of open hardware, where designs are appropriated and made cheaply for private profit in China (Tsvetan’s experience notwithstanding).
Michel’s solution to this problem is the commons-based reciprocity licence. This licence is the same as the GPL, but with one crucial change to the rules: for profit businesses using the commons must pay a licence fee. This proposal is controversial because some people in the commons movement see anything that is not one hundred percent open to be a retrograde step. But Michel anticipates a double benefit from this change.
Firstly, it will create a stream of income to the commons itself, from the side of capital to the side of commons. Secondly, it will integrate externalities. Externalities are not normally considered in business, unless managed through government regulation. However, Michel argues that effective regulation “is endangered because the state is being captured by those it’s supposed to control”.
Michel sees this commons-based reciprocity licence as a social charter, protected by a global foundation that we must yet build. “Every project today,” he says, “is starting from scratch. If we had a coalition, we’d have scale, we’d have pre-existing solidarity.” This is Michel’s link between openness and fairness: “If we had a licence,” he says, “we could have open book accounting and open supply chains.” This transparency, Michel believes, leads to fairness, or at least the possibility of fairness, as we have seen with Nager IT and the fair-as-can-be mouse.
Michel’s example is Curto Cafe, a Brazilian coffee company who operate open book accounting and an open supply chain, showing exactly who produces the coffee, under what working conditions and also exactly who gets paid what. They also have open research and the designs of the blends of coffee are posted online. Their retail expansion is crowd-funded, under a similar model used by Kleine Farm, by asking the local community to fund their rent. This transparency and community accountability ensures that Curto Cafe run their business in the fairest possible way.
Michel believes that, if we want a fairer society, we will ultimately have to create an open and commons-based counter-economy. Part of that counter-economy will be the development of an alternative currency. Together with the CIC in Catalonia, Michel is buying up a fairly-distributed crypto-currency, Faircoin.
Unlike Bitcoin, Faircoin doesn’t encourage rent extraction: stockpiling coins in order to profit from rising currency value. “This is not positive from a commons point of view,” Michel says of Bitcoin. “But what if you could use rent extraction and give it away to entrepreneurs?” CIC and Michel want to use Faircoin as a capital investment collective, to create a flow of value from the capitalist economy to the commons-orientated economy.
There are many problems obstructing fairness and openness, not just in IT, but in our entire social and economic structure. The challenge is, as Michel says, “to design a system in which these problems are already answered and solved from the very beginning”. From environmental impact research and open supply chains to open source hardware and alternative currencies, we have perhaps seen a glimpse today of that beginning.