Commons Based Reciprocity Licenses

Commons Based Reciprocity Licenses (CBRLs or “CopyFair” licenses) are specifically designed to find a middle ground between the full-sharing Copyleft licenses, such as the GPL, the Non-Commercial licenses, such as those offered by Creative Commons, and the copyright regime which privatises knowledge.

CBRLs will provide for the free use and unimpeded commercialization of licensed material within the Commons while resisting its non-reciprocal appropriation by for-profit driven entities, unless those entities contribute to the Commons by way of licensing fees or other means. Our intention is to stimulate wealth circulation within the Commons and strengthen the resilience of P2P as a proto-mode of production with a constructive, rather than extractive, relationship with the corporate sector.

Apart from their practical use as off-the-shelf licenses, CBRLs will also highlight the precise interaction between the Commons and the new ethical market sectors, whilst supporting the emergence of a vibrant commons sector that can insure its own livelihood.

The following text has been extracted from Michel Bauwens’ Commons Transition plan. You can read the whole document here

Today, we have a paradox. The more shareable the license we use in the peer production of free software or open hardware, the more capitalistic the practice of the enterpreneurial coaltion which forms around it. An example of this is the Linux commons becoming a corporate commons, enriching IBM and the like. It works, in a certain way, and seems acceptable to most free software developers, but it is insufficient for the creation of a true ethical economy around the commons.

Indeed, the General Public License (and its variants) allow anyone to use and modify the software code (or design), as long as the changes are also put back into the common pool under the same conditions for further users. This is, in fact, technically ‘communism’ as defined by Marx (from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs) but which then paradoxically allows multinationals to use the free software code for profit and capital accumulation. The result is that we do have an accumulation of immaterial commons, based on open input, participatory process, and commons-oriented output, but that it is subsumed to capital accumulation. It is at present not possible, or at least not easy, to have social reproduction (i.e. livelihoods) within the sphere of the commons. Hence, the free software and culture movements, however important they are as new social forces and expressions of new social demands, are also in essence ‘liberal’. This is not only acknowledged by its leaders, such as Richard Stallman, but also by anthropological studies like those of Gabriela Coleman. Without being terribly tongue-in-cheek, we could say they are liberal-communist and communist-liberal movements, which create a ‘communism of capital’. True to the liberal tradition, they care for the freedoms, but not for the fairness of the conditions in which these freedoms can be exercised.

Is there an alternative? We believe there is.This would be to replace non-reciprocal licenses, i.e. those which do not demand direct reciprocity from users, to one based on reciprocity. Technically, we could call it a switch from ‘communist’, to ‘socialist’ licenses’, socialism being traditionally defined as that intermediary stage in which everyone receives according to effort.

This is the choice of the Peer Production License as designed and proposed by Dmytri Kleiner; it is not to be confused with the Creative Commons non-commercial license, as the logic is different.

The logic of the CC-NC is to offer protection to individuals who are reluctant to share, as they do not wish a commercialization of their work that does not reward them for their labor. Thus, the Creative Commons ‘non-commercial’ license stops further economic development based on this open and shared knowledge, and keeps it entirely in the not-for-profit sphere.

The logic of the PPL is to allow commercialization, but on the basis of a demand for reciprocity. We see it as a forerunner of better – or at least broader – reciprocity licenses, as the PPL is geared exclusively to worker-owned cooperatives. The PPL is designed to enable and empower a counter-hegemonic reciprocal economy that combines commons that are open to all that contribute, while charging a license fee fto the for-profit companies who want to use without contributing. Not that much changes for the multinationals. In practice, they can still use the code if they contribute, as IBM does with Linux, and for those who don’t, they would pay a license fee, a practice they are used to. Its practical effect would be to direct a stream of income from capital to the commons, but its main effect would be ideological, or, if you like, value-driven.

The enterpreneurial coalitions linked around a PPL commons would be explicitely oriented towards their contributions to the commons and the alternative value system that that represents. From the point of view of peer producers or commoners, i.e. the communities of contributors to the common pool, this would allow them to create their own cooperative entities in which profit would be subsumed to the social goal of sustaining the commons and the commoners. Even the participating for-profit companies would consciously contribute under a new logic. It links the commons to an enterpreneurial coalition of ethical market entities (coops and other models), and keeps the surplus value entirely within the sphere of commoners/cooperators instead of leaking out to the multinationals. In other words, through this convergence, or rather, combination of a commons model for the abundant immaterial resources, and a reciprocity-based model for the ‘scarce’ material resources, the issue of livelihoods and social reproduction would be solved, and surplus value is kept inside the commons sphere itself. It is the cooperatives that would, through their cooperative accumulation, fund the production of immaterial commons, because they would pay and reward the peer producers associated with them.

In this way, peer production would move from a proto-mode of production, unable to perpetuate itself on its own outside capitalism, to an autonomous and real mode of production. It creates a counter-economy that can be the basis for reconstituting a ‘counter-hegemony’ with a for-benefit circulation of value, which, allied to pro-commons social movements, could be the basis of the political and social transformation of the political economy. Hence we move from a situation in which the communism of capital is dominant, to a situation in which we have a ‘capital for the commons’, increasingly insuring the self-reproduction of the peer production mode.

The PPL is used experimentally by Guerrilla Translation, and is being discussed in various places, for example, in France, in the open agricultural machining and design communities.

There is also a specific potential inside the commons-oriented ethical economy, such as the application of open book accounting and open supply chains, which would allow a different value circulation whereby the stigmergic mutual coordination that already works at scale for immaterial cooperation and production would move to the coordination of physical production, creating post-market dynamics of allocation in the physical sphere. Replacing both the market allocation through the price signal, and central planning, this new system of material production would allow for massive mutual coordination instead, enabling a new form of ‘resource-based economics’

Finally, this whole system can be strengthened by creating commons-based venture funding, so as to create material commons, as proposed by Dmytri Kleiner. In this way, the machine park itself is taken out of the sphere of capital accumulation. In this proposed system, cooperatives needing capital for machinery would post a bond, and the other coops in the system would fund the bond, and buy the machine for a commons in which both funders and users would be members. The interest paid on these loans would create a fund that would gradually be able to pay an increasing income to their members, constituting a new kind of basic income.

So, to summarize our proposal for the new Commons-Based Reciprocity License, it would allow the free usage of a particular commons on the following conditions:

  • that the entity is a common good institution or enterprise, structurally linked to a social or common good objective through its internal statutes.
  • that the activity or entity is non-commercial.
  • that the for-profit usage of the particular commons is based on reciprocity.
  • small and cooperative, worker-owned enterprises with for-profit activities or goals can also make use of the particular commons governed by a CBRL.

The key exception is that for-profit, shareholder owned enterprises that do not contribute to the particular  commons are required to pay a licensing fee or another form of negotiated reciprocity.

The interpretations of the rules, particular cases, and any exceptions, are decided by the democratically elected and managed for-benefit association that is linked to the particular commons.

Title background image by Helen Briggs