Eine leuchtende grüne Ampel neben einer roten, die mit dem Wort 'GO' beschriftet ist.

5.1.2007 | Von:
Rishab Aiyer Ghosh

The Big World of the Many Small

You already named textbooks as another example for the open source model. It is currently used for cultural goods and software only. Do you see possibilities for expanding the model to other goods and services? Where is the limit?

I see two boundaries. One is a sort of "hard" boundary, which has to do with the nature of the goods and services. The other is a "soft" boundary, which changes and has to do with the sustainability of people's incentives. The hard boundary is probably the material aspect. The whole model of freedom and free production depends on the fact that you can copy the whole cooking pot. So it's not going to work for cars. I can never make a car in my garage, or even if I can, it's still going to cost a lot of money and I only make one car, and another car is going to cost more to make than one car. Ten articles, ten copies of the same article cost no more than nine copies. So that's going to be a limit.

That said, you might well have open source car blueprints, where people can share their designs for a car, and you have that already in certain types of sports equipment, where power users make changes to their things – such as in surfboarding, skating, even skiing. You have an open hardware movement that tries to publish blueprints for computers. But there's a boundary where it's no longer open because finally, you have to actually produce the item.

The second boundary is more in terms of incentives and sustainability. In 1999, it seemed that open source was working more for technical areas, where power users and developers were the same people, and less for areas where consumers were very different from the developers. But the incentives have expanded, so now you have OpenOffice, which works just as well as Microsoft Office. It's purely end user related, the developers aren't busy writing big documents or presentations, so there's not very much overlap. But it works because there is a different infrastructure now: There are companies which are paying for this. There are people who develop this software simply because they want to be famous.

So there are lots of different incentives, and I think the incentives differ from subject to subject. For art, it depends what type of art you're talking about. In music, there's an old model which has always existed and is similar to the "give the software away but make money from services": "Give the music away but make money from performances". And in fact, that's still the main way in which people make money from music.

In my journal "First Monday", we published a paper a few years ago that said that in Germany, there are less than 1.500 people who make a living from royalties for their music, who earn more than 15.000 Euro a year through music sales. Everyone else who is a musician has to make a living from either something else, or from performances.

Ten years ago, there was a very well-written paper about the economics of music by Courtney Love, the partner of Kurt Cobain from Nirvana, that said that even they didn't make money out of recordings, they made money from performances and it would make sense to them to give away their recordings for free so that more people would come and listen to them perform.

For other types of things such as painting, I don't know if the same incentives work. For textbooks, on the other hand, these incentives can work, because here it's teachers who are in the best position to create and modify content, and there's really no reason why teachers should not be doing this. Why one ex-teacher should write a textbook out of which a publisher makes a lot of money then, there's no real reason for that today. It's entirely feasible for thousands, tens of thousands of teachers in classrooms to collaborate together, to share their content and make changes that work best for their classrooms.


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