13 June 2007

OpenDemocracy, Closed Minds?

I like OpenDemocracy. It has some interesting articles, very often on areas about which I know little. But I do have to wonder, sometimes, whether the minds there are quite as open to new ideas as they seem to be:

In the example of openDemocracy's articles being available on a profusion of other publications, the choice for a reader between this site or that site tends to the meaningless - indeed, it is often mediated by a search algorithm. What is the significance of reading about the Serbian election on ISN rather than openDemocracy? Is there a defining choice there? So here is the paradox for communities of the digital commons: to build a community is to offer an escape from the arbitrary; but to release material to the digital commons is to add to the conditions of the arbitrary.

Well, no, actually. Since:

Today almost all of openDemocracy's articles are licensed under Creative Commons (CC) "advertising" licenses. This is a modification of the ordinary, default, copyright position. Under the license we use, the author and the publication allow reproduction of the article as long as: the receiving publication is making non-commercial use of the material; that it is attributing the material to the original publication; and that it is not making any modifications of the material.

Assuming the licence is respected, this means that there is still a link back to this "community"; indeed, it will drive more people to that "community". Fortunately, OpenDemocracy has a voice of reason in its midst:

Becky Hogge, openDemocracy columnist and head of the Open Rights Group, put to me the orthodox position from the Commons (the diffuse movement that sees intellectual property as inappropriate to the digital age). This is just how things ought to work, she claimed: the information gets greater coverage, and, once created, that is all that counts.

Yup: go, Becky, go.


Unknown said...

hi glyn,

sorry i didn't see this earlier, or i would have responded.

your arguemnt rests heavily on the assumption that the link-back will actually generate lots of traffic back.

Well, it doesn't. If it did, I would see your point.

I suppose my main contention now is that whether CC works for us here is an empirical question more than one of principle: yes, it drives traffic; yes, it makes for good, sharing, open, karma. But I think you should concede the conceptual point that it also has a community-destroying effect.

Which is more important at which stage of a publication's life is, I contend, a question of facts, not ideals. We should not becvome license fetishists.

Tony Curzon Price
openDemocracy Editor-in-Chief

Glyn Moody said...

I think the problem is that the notion of community is changing along with much else, as we negotiate the shift from an analogue world of scarcity to a digital one devoid of it.

Communities are probably even more important in this new world, as we've seen through the meteoric rise of blogging, wikis, and social networks. But they are also highly volatile: yesterday everyone's friends were on MySpace, today they're on Facebook, tomorrow, who knows?

The thing is, you can't tie down these communities: if they want to go, they will. There are no costs to swapping - one of the reasons open source is so good for the user, and yet also good for the developer, because it forces them to be the best and to lead by second-guessing their community (as Linus was the first to realise in this context).

For that reason, you really do want to get your stuff out and cited as widely as possible: your community will then come to and coalesce around you if you get it right. Sure, some people will read copies elsewhere and fail to make the link back: but that just goes to show they were never part of the community, almost by definition.

I don't quite understand what barriers you hope to put in place to "keep" your community, but I do know that the more "effective" they are at constraining people, and at placing obstacles in their way as they move around the digital realm, the more they will act against the thing you are trying to achieve.

I'm not a licence fetishist, as you term it, but I do believe that the dynamics of openness are better for practically everyone (the only exceptions are companies exploiting the antiquated and skewed system of anti-open intellectual monopolies - like Microsoft or Elsevier - whose profit margins will fall from their current, very high levels). There really is no tension between openness and community: without the former, you haven't really got the latter.

Unknown said...

Microsoft and Elsevier are not the only options. What about the New York Times or the Guardian? They maintain copyright, but make everything free online.

Why doesn't the Guardian use CC? Because 1. it gets advertising revenue from page impressions and 2.it hopes that people will associate what they find there with the "guardian brand" - the collective reputation of everything that goes to make up the guardian.

That brand is valuable - even for consumers - and not to be dismissed. It stands for something and creates subtle meta-information. CC destroys that meta information.

Glyn Moody said...
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Glyn Moody said...
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Glyn Moody said...

I agree absolutely that brand is important: it's one of the reasons I blog (the other is I just like sounding off...).

But if you look at the Creative Commons licences you'll see that they *all* require attribution: in other words, the brand is preserved.

And you can still make money from CC'd content: the key thing is that as the originator of content, people will naturally turn to you, rather than repostings. The re-use is more in the way of advertising driving traffic to your site.

If you don't read it already, I strongly recommend the Techdirt blog, which spends a lot of time examining business models in the absence of scarcity.

Unknown said...


Look at

How is that branded oD - it satisfies the attribution requirement, and we have even now got ISN to put in a link. But who is gaining in the credibility stakes? I say ISN, especially since they top us in most Google searches.


Glyn Moody said...

Well, I can see not one but *three* bits of your branding there.

The point is, if someone reads this article and enjoys it, they will follow it back to you, since you are the source. If they don't enjoy it, or are just plain lazy, you've not lost anything anyway.

So ultimately, this site is providing *free* advertising for you, *and* winnowing readers to give you the good ones.

What's not to like?

Unknown said...

2 remarks:

1. your view of how advertising and branding works, glyn, is one that comes from a critical mind possibly not much subject to it. Branding works through repeated, small-scale, positive association. Someone who gets to the article via google, who would otherwise have clicked on the oD version, has reinforced the standing of isn, and only very peripherally, if at all, oD.

2. your argument has taken a slightly theological twist, I feel - you say that clicking through the oD link on the ISN article becomes the defining factor of a reader worth having.

You have just made the CC license worthwhile axiomatically. As I kept saying in the original article, I am presenting the view of pragmatic empiricism.

Glyn Moody said...

My view of brands and advertising comes from spending far too much time online: so while I certainly don't claim much expertise about the traditional style (although I was a publishing director for some years), I have been following this Internet lark for nearly 14 years, and may have picked up a thing or two.

My point is that the kind of link-back branding I'm talking about *is* how this stuff works online, and that applying traditional notions doesn't really help. Indeed, it may lead you to focus on the wrong aspects of what you're trying to achieve.

It's true that I have slightly heterodox views about how all content (including digital music and films) will be free - not *ought* to be, but will be as a consequence of their infinite availability (since perfect copies can be made for effectively zero cost). The trick, then, is how to make money from this kind of branding.

All this has been put much better by Mike Masnick at


I do urge you to read it. I'm sure you'll find it intellectually highly stimulating, as I did.