Responding to Stefan Meretz’s critique of the Peer Production License

Stefan Meretz produced a critique of the Peer Production License, or more generically, Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, in the Keimform blog, to which I promised to respond.

Unfortunately, the critique is rather weak and misleading, so our responses will be rather short and inserted inline. Our responses are in bold and b-quote.

For context, I support the PPL, not in its full detail, but as a first of a kind, Commons-Based Reciprocity License (the concept is from Primavera de Filippi and Miguel Veira).

The key argument is the following: the present fully-sharing open licenses which allow unrestricted commercial exploitation create a ‘communism of capital’, i.e. a sphere of open knowledge, code and design, which is subsumed to the present dominant political economy. But what we need is an autonomous sphere of peer production, in which commoners and peer producers can create their own livelyhood, while staying in the sphere of the commons. In other words, we need a ‘capital for the commons’. The best way to achieve that is to converge the sphere of immaterial commons contributions, with a sphere of cooperative accumulation through which the surplus value can stay within the sphere of commons/cooperative production.

This is why we need a new type of licensing.

So, without further ado, Stefan Meretz writes:

“At first one has to understand the nature licenses have under the given conditions. Licenses are permissions, thus contracts, “granted by a party (‘licensor’) to another party (‘licensee’) as an element of an agreement between those parties”. It bases on the precondition of excluding all other people by the “rightholder”. The power of exclusion given by law can be converted into a “permission for all” by way of tricky constructions combined with the obligation to put derived works under the GPL as well (copyleft principle). Herein is nothing communist. The logic of exclusion is partially reversed and therefore new spaces of commons oriented practices can be created. Better than nothing. The license itself only protects these practices against proprietary destructions. From my point of view this can not be more under the given conditions. The outer world is ruled by the logics of valuation and exclusion, and every free zone to self-determine other practices has to be wrested from these dominant logics. Embryonic forms, precisely.”

This first critique is rather weak. Indeed, I am not talking about the legal, contractual basis of the GPL and similar licenses, but on the social logic that they enable, which is: it allows anybody to contribute, and it allows anybody to use. This is both consistent with Marx’s defintion of communism, and with the definition I use, that of communal shareholding by Alan Page Fiske. This logic of course only exists in the realm of abundant digital information, but it exists within the sphere of the political economy of capital. To deny this on the grounds of legal technicalities seems to me a feeble argument.

The second part of the thesis “…the more capitalistic the practice” fails as well. There is no comparative of “capitalistic”. If you replace “capitalistic” with “commodity-based”, then is becomes even clearer: Something is a commodity or not. Free software, for instance, isn’t a commodity. It can be appropriated and used by everyone, even by big corporations. However, they cannot transform the free software into a commodity, since this is prevented by the GPL. But they can use the software in order to realize their business models in another fields. This free use is a thorn in Bauwens side. He wants the commons to only be commercially used by those who have contributed beforehand.

This is also very weak, since I am not saying and never said, that the GPL turns free sofrware into a commodity. But what I’m saying, and what nobody can deny, is that non-commodified free software is subsumed to the capitalist economy that uses it. There is a thriving commercial company of products and services which is using and is based on GPL-generated code, as there is on open design. 75% of Linux developers are paid by commercial companies operating in the capitalist marketplace.

From my perspective the presentation of the GPL as “communist” is wrong, but this attribution has the function to propagate a milder license variant which then is called “socialist”: the PPL (Peer-Production-License). This license only grants external access to the resources to those who are using them non-commercially, while internally unlimited exploitation is allowed. The divide intern/extern usually refers to a firm. If external parties want to use the resources commercially, then they have to pay a license fee or make other contributions.

The GPL effectively enables a social logic of unlimited use, including by multinational companies. The peer production license resticts it. From my point of view this makes it a stronger and not a milder license. Let me point out that I do not take the PPL as perfect, but as a new kind of Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, whose detailed modalities can very well differ from the original PPL. Such licenses fully allow commercial exploitation, but ask for reciprocity. Think of a traditional indigenous community using a GPL of similar. This means any commercial entity can use the knowledge and commercialize it, without any benefit or profit-sharing with the creators of the knowledge. A CBRL would simply ask for reciprocity and would allow these traditional communities to generate autonomous living and livelyhoods, something which is harder to do with the GPL.

Is only exchange reciprocal? In order to justify the PPL the argument of reciprocity is claimed. The “communist” GPL is non-reciprocal, while the “socialist” PPL demands reciprocity. The word reciprocity nicely blurs what is actually meant: exchange. In fact, the GPL breaks the logic of exchange, while the PPL requires and enforces it — namely not only the exchange logic itself, but the societally valid form of equivalent exchange. Someone who wants to keep “the surplus value into the commons sphere” has to act that way, whereby “commons sphere” is a euphemism for an ordinary company.

This is the first valid critique. Indeed, the PPL / CBRL would indeed limit the non-reciprocity for for-profit entities, but no, Stefan is wrong, it does not demand equivalent exchange, but only some form of negotiated reciprocity. The important aspect is to generate a flow of realized value, necessary for social reproduction, from the sphere of capital accumulation to the sphere of the commons. The second aspect is organizational. It promotes the self-organisation of an ethical economy, and makes those who want to join it, conscious of that fact, including for-profit companies which can decide to ally with the ethical enterpreneurial coalition.

The notion of reciprocity is misused in an ideologically blurring way. Licenses are never reciprocal, only people can behave that way. Thus, the question can only be whether licenses encourage reciprocity between people or not, and if so, in what way. Then the evaluation of GPL and PPL looks completely different.The GPL creates and promotes direct reciprocity between people, because no exchange and also no compelled contribution stands between people.

This is absolutely wrong, the GPL doesn’t demand nor create direct reciprocity between people. It is entirely possible to use GPL material without any reciprocity, as the overwhelming majority of its users actually do. But the GPL requires what anthropologist call ‘general reciprocity’, i.e. at the collective level, a minimum of contributions is needed to sustain the system. But there is absolutely no requirement for direct reciprocity. The reciprocity is between the individual and the system as a whole. A coder or wikipedia contributor cannot expect any return from any particular individual but only expects the benefits of the whole system, which depend only on a general flow of contributions.

By contrast, the PPL limits direct reciprocity by putting exchange or compulsory contributions between people if they want to use resources commercially. But what is commercial? It is the same discussion which has taken place around the NC module of the Creative Commons Licenses. There the insight is: The NC module undermines sharing, and the same applies to the PPL (although trying to dissociate from the CC-NC).

The PPL only limits non-recicprocal use by for-profit companies. It does not prohibit commercial exploitation but actually encourages it, while the Non-Commercial CC license actually prohibits it. The NC does not undermine sharing, but commercialisation. The PPL encourages and allows both sharing and commercialisation.

To sharpen the point: Both licenses support reciprocal behavior of people. With respect to GPL it is positive reciprocity, because in this case it only counts how people behave socially and which rules they agree upon in a self-determined way, in order to bring all participants together. Concerning the PPL it is negative reciprocity, since a portion of people are subjugated to the alien form of exchange of equivalents (money) and are excluded from the cooperation to this end. Thus, the GPL is rather in accordance with the commons idea of self-determining own rules than the PPL.

From the above refutations follow that this conclusion is entirely erroneous. In fact, there is only self-determination of the contributory process in the GPL context, but full alienation to capital in the surrounding commercial sphere. By contrast the PPL not only allows full self-determination in the contributory sphere, but requires self-management in the cooperative sphere of self-reproduction, something which is much more difficult with the GPL, since it subsumes livelyhoods to capital accumulation.

This is the end of my response to the first part of the critique by Stefan Meretz. The critique in no way refutes any of the premises for the need of the PPL or similar Commos-Based Reciprocity Licenses.

2 Comments Responding to Stefan Meretz’s critique of the Peer Production License

  1. Rob Myers

    “75% of Linux developers are paid by commercial companies operating in the capitalist marketplace.”

    “The GPL effectively enables a social logic of unlimited use, including by multinational companies. The peer production license resticts it. From my point of view this makes it a stronger and not a milder license.”

    Reducing the value of Linux to other actors by 75% would not make it “stronger” for them.

    “The NC does not undermine sharing, but commercialisation.”

    It undermines sharing by preventing people from being able to produce work to share.

    “By contrast the PPL not only allows full self-determination in the contributory sphere, but requires self-management in the cooperative sphere of self-reproduction, something which is much more difficult with the GPL, since it subsumes livelyhoods to capital accumulation.”

    I seem to recall socialist critiques of self management…

    The PPL imposes a particular economic model. The GPL privileges the liberty to use the code over any other consideration. It is overreach to accuse the GPL of subsuming livelihoods to capital, the GPL ironises capital’s attempts at this in order to return value to society. The PPL is more of a sulk.

  2. Michel Bauwens

    hi Rob,

    thanks for the comments but the CBRL would not reduce the 75% nothing .. all use that contributes is fine, and the minority that doesn’t would pay a license fee, something they are used to in all other sectors anyway .. the point of the CBRL is not really to extract the maximum amount of license fees, but to introduce the reciprocity model in the economy that uses the commons as its bases.

    Re your remark about the NC, maybe you are right, and that’s why the CBRL does not do it, it encourages commercialization, but transforms it into a ethical economy.

    Not sure what the meaning is of your remark about socialist critiques, are you a socialist ? In any case, peer to peer favors self-management.

    Your conclusion may be right, and that is exactly why we need something else, which is not focused on code, but on transformative social change. Free code is not enough.

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