Tools and practices for Commons-Based Platform Cooperatives

« We need to pioneer technical, organizational and financial forms that enable users to mutualize the benefits of their own online sharing ».

Excerpted from David Bollier:

“Our imaginations and aspirations must begin to shift their focus from open platforms to digital commons. Self-organized commoners must be able to control the terms of their interactions and governance, and to reap the fruits of their own collaboration and sharing.

Towards the CopyFair License

A variety of legal and technological innovations are now starting to address the structural limits of (market-financed) open platforms as vehicles for commoning. These initiatives remain somewhat emergent, yet they are filled with great promise. They aspire to empower digital commoners in resisting market capture and enclosure of their collectively created content, community norms and identity. Corporate platforms privilege the social monoculture of producer/consumer relationships and only those social behaviors that comport with the host-company’s business model (or more generally, with market relationships). By contrast, self-organized commons enable richer, more diverse and meaningful types of freedom and culture.

The basic problem, however, is that digital commons tend to have trouble growing and sustaining themselves. They do not have adequate organizational and governance structures nor adequate financial support. However, a new generation of innovations may help address these problems.

One possibility now being explored, for example, is “commons-based reciprocity licenses,” sometimes known as CopyFair. These proposed licenses based on copyright ownership would allow no-cost sharing among members of a commons, but require payment by any commercial users of the community’s work. The idea is now being developed by Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation and open-agriculture hardware developers, among others. Unlike the Creative Commons NonCommercial license, which absolutely stops commercial development of a line of information or creative work, the CopyFair license would allow commercialization, but on the basis of mandatory (monetized) reciprocity.

The potential of the Blockchain

Another instrument for converting open platforms into digital commons is the blockchain ledger, the software innovation that lies at the heart of Bitcoin. Although Bitcoin itself has been designed to serve familiar capitalist functions (tax avoidance, private accumulation through speculation), the blockchain ledger is significant because it can enable highly reliable, versatile forms of collective action on open networks. It does this by validating the authenticity of a digital object (for now, a bitcoin) without the need for a third-party guarantor such as a bank or government body.

This solves a particularly difficult collective-action problem in an open network context: How do you know that a given digital object — a bitcoin, a legal document, digital certificate, dataset, a vote or digital identity asserted by an individual — is the “real thing” and not a forgery? By using a searchable online “ledger” that keeps track of all transactions (i.e., bitcoins), blockchain technology solves this problem by acting as a kind of permanent record maintained by a vast distributed peer network. This makes it far more secure than data kept at a centralized location because the authenticity of a bitcoin registered among so many nodes in the network is virtually impossible to corrupt.

Because of these capabilities, a recently released report suggests that blockchain technology could provide a critical infrastructure for building what are called “distributed collaborative organizations” (DCO, and sometimes “distributed autonomous organizations”).

These are essentially self-organized online commons. A DCO could use blockchain technology to give its members specified rights within the organization, which could be managed and guaranteed by the blockchain. These rights, in turn, could be linked to the conventional legal system to make the rights legally cognizable and enforceable.
One rudimentary example of how the blockchain might be used to facilitate a commons: In the US, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt has proposed using blockchain technology to create distributed networks of solar power on residential houses coordinated as commons. The ledger would keep track of how much energy a given homeowner generates and shares with others, and consumes. In effect the system would enable the efficient organization of decentralized solar grids and a “green currency” that could serve as a medium of exchange within solar microgrids or networks, helping to propel adoption of solar panels. The blockchain amounts to a network-based architecture for enabling commons-based governance.

Smart Transactions

« A realm of software innovation is trying to blend familiar co-operative structures with open network platforms to enable collective deliberation and governance through online systems »

This field of experimentation may yield another breakthrough tool for forging digital commons: smart contracts. These are dynamic software modules operating in an architecture of shared protocols (much like TCP/IP or http) that could enable new types of group governance, decision-making and rules-enforcement on open network platforms.

We are already familiar with rudimentary — and corporate-oriented versions — of this idea, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), an encryption/authentication system that gives companies the ability to constrain how users may use their legally purchased technologies (DVDs, CDs, etc.). As the power of networked collaboration has become clear, however, many tech innovators now recognize that the real challenge is not how to lock up and privatize digital artifacts, but how to assure that they can be reliably shared on open platforms in legally enforceable ways, for the benefit of a defined group of contributors or for everyone.

There are now many active efforts underway to devise technical systems for deploying “smart” legal agents whose transactions would also be enforceable under conventional law. The “transactions” could, of course, be used to invent new types of markets, but they also could be used to create new types of commons. Ultimately, the two realms may bleed into each other and create social hybrids that conjoin community commitments and market activity.
A related realm of software innovation is trying to blend familiar co-operative structures with open network platforms to enable collective deliberation and governance — “commoning” — through online systems. Some of the more notable experiments include Loomio, DemocracyOS and LiquidFeedback. Each of these seeks to enable members of online networks to carry on direct, sustained and somewhat complicated discussions, and then to clarify group sentiment and reach decisions that participants see as binding, legitimate and meaningful.

Networks of peer producers

In a natural extension of such capacities, “open value networks” (OVN) are attempts to enable bounded networks of participants to carry out crowdfunding, crowdsourcing of knowledge, co-budgeting among its identifiable members. “Open value networks” such as Enspiral and Sensorica have been described as an “operating system for a new kind of organization” and a “pilot project for the new economy.” OVNs consist of digital platforms that facilitate new modes of decentralized and self-organized social governance, production and livelihoods among members of distinct communities. The networks are organized in ways that let anyone to contribute to the project, and be rewarded based on their contributions, as measured by actual contributions, experience and other collectively determined criteria.

Unlike “conventional commons” that tend to eschew market-based activity, open value networks have no reservations about engaging with markets; OVNs simply wish to maintain their organizational and cultural integrity as commons-based peer producers. This means open, horizontal and large-scale cooperation and coordination; responsible stewardship of the shared wealth and assets while allowing individual access, use, authorship and ownership of resources “where appropriate”; careful accounting of individual “inputs and outcomes” via a common ledger system; and the distribution of fair rewards based on individual contributions to the project. Some notable keywords for describing OVNs: equipotentiality, anti-credentialism, self-selection, communal validation and holoptism.

As mentioned earlier, these initiatives to create new technical, organizational and financing for platform cooperativism are still emerging and debated in meetings as the one taking place soon in New York City. They will require further experimentation and development to make them fully functional and scalable. Yet they promise to provide attractive, potentially breakthrough alternatives to business-driven platforms that stipulate the terms of participation and do not facilitate the mutualized benefit among commoners. By providing more trustworthy systems for genuine commoning and user sovereignty and control, these new forms could soon enable digital commons — and hybrid forms of user-driven markets — to surpass the value-creating capacities of conventional open platforms.”

4 Comments Tools and practices for Commons-Based Platform Cooperatives

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    a comment by Lisha Sterling

    Here is the content of that comment, because if no on be is working on this, I will write that paper…

    Is anyone currently writing a CopyFair blockchain application? I have a picture in my mind of an app built based on FairCoin kinda sorta, but instead of having a wallet and coin, you have a content token which can be attached to a piece of software, music, writing, etc. The token would be included in a comment/documentation function in software or listed in the byline of an article, or otherwise attached in a meaningful way to show authorship of the content. Looking up this token would give you something resembling a blame chain in a source code repository, but without all the changes. This as a matter of saving on storage requirements, since that could be HUGE when tracking all changes, additions and embedded influences over time.

    Such a system would allow for tracking of who had contributed to any piece which at some point would be picked up for commercial use so that remuneration could be paid.

    Oh dear… Please tell me someone is already working on this, because if not, I think I have a paper to write this weekend.

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    dear Lisha,

    as far as I know, the copyfair itself only exists in prototype formats such as the Peer Production License and the double CC license use by the FairShares Association.

    Therefore it would be a good guess that there is no blockchain application,


  3. AvatarBob Haugen is working on a blockchain app for music and other media assets. is working on a decentralized model, vocabulary and human-level protocols. The value equation for income distribution will derive from (aka Network Requirements Planning (NRP) software).

    Here’s a slide deck for the current working implementation (no blockchains involved):

    Has not yet been applied to software, but could be.

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