Category: Free Culture

On occasion of the death of Elinor Ostrom

I was sad to read that Elinor Ostrom, political economist and 2009 Nobel Prize winner in economics, died this Tuesday. Since I came across her work years ago, she has been one of my favourite economists, and a great inspiration for my thinking about society. My decision to study behavioural sciences, including economics, I owe in part to her work.

With her studies on self-governing communities, Ostrom freed the commons of the attribute ‘tragic’, as the German taz writes. She showed that between state control and privatization, a third avenue exists for collective action. Bringing together rigorous economic theory and field observations collected by anthropologists, Ostrom mounted a powerful challenge to mainstream economic theory.

In recent years, Ostrom’s work gained reach beyond her initial case studies, which dealt with water basins, irrigation systems, and mountain meadows. Lawrence Lessig, in particular, expanded the idea of the commons to the digital realms. The licensing scheme he initiated, Creative Commons, is used on this blog – as on many others – to make virtual products available to us 21st century kids and our read/write culture.

Despite my glowing reverence, and that of many who unite under the banner of the commons in search for a better society, Ostrom’s work has always struck my as thorough and tentative. ‘Governing the Commons’, her major work and the one which established her reputation, is formulated not like the triumphal product of years of hard work, but like a research report. It combines the two attributes of a great researcher; a revolutionary vision and detailed empiricism.

For me as a social liberal and anti-surveillance activist, the role Ostrom attributes to monitoring and punishment in self-governing communities was an intellectual challenge when I first discovered her work. In the past months, in particular, I have spent much thought to the relationship of liberty and punishment. My academic work has focused intensively on altruistic punishment and its role in human cooperation recently, and I am looking forward to dedicating my senior thesis to this topic.

As much as Elinor Ostrom has influenced me academically, I also admire her life story. Until today, she is the only woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in economics, and her biography betrays a sense of the hurdles she had to overcome on the way. Most notably, she received the prize although she did never study economics – when she applied for graduate school, she was turned down as women were deemed unfit for such a mathematical subject, and ended up in political science.

Elinor Ostrom’s work has given me a vision of collective action and a society without hierarchies, but it has also warned me of the sacrifices such a community demands of its citizens. She has been an inspiration in many ways, and she will remain a model researcher to me in the future.

Book Review: Argentina Copyleft

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has recently edited a reader on intellectual property and free culture movements in Argentina. It is entitled “Argentina Copyleft”, and contains a range of essays from librarians, artists, scholars, activists, and programmers.

The book places particular emphasis on the plight of libraries, and those who use them, under Argentina’s restrictive 1933 copyright law, and another 2001 one that is cynically named “law for the advancement of the book and the culture of reading”. The country’s regulations are particularly tough, as they do not include exceptions common in most copyright regimes, e.g. for librarians. As Lucía Pelaya and Ana Sanllorenti write, their colleagues are thus constantly under threat from law enforcement if they want to preserve their institutes’ portfolios. Or, as Federico Reggiano puts it, “one cannot pursue serious research in Argentina anymore without becoming a criminal.”

A case of copyright enforcement that has become known beyond the border of Argentina has been that of Horacio Potel, professor of philosophy at the University of Lanús and webmaster of a series of online libraries featuring Spanish translations of the works of Heidegger, Derrida, and others. In an interview with Beatriz Busaniche, Potel explains his motivation for creating these archives that eventually got him charged by the Argentinian state (the case was later dropped). Works by foreign authors, he says, are often just not available in Argentina. The rights are held by international corporations which neglect them for years, and eventual print runs are small and sell out soon.

One particularly smart essay, also dealing with publishing monopolies, was penned by Federico Heinz, spokesman of the GNU project. He writes about “electronic books, dry water, and other mythical creatures”. It is a powerful refutation of ebooks, which he says are, in fact, digital archives with a use that’s limited even compared to printed books, only marketed by the publishing industry in order to preserve control over the business.

While the book features its share of tales about the librarian / artist / student in distress, it also highlights successes from Argentina that might not be known abroad. Marilina Winik, for instance, writes about “copyleft publishing houses”. First there was censorship during the military dictatorship in the seventies and eighties, she finds, later a sell-out to international corporations in the nineties, and finally a national financial crisis in 2001: Reason enough for independent publishers to start using licenses such as Creative Commons, and for some authors to add individual comments like this one by writer Paul Strucchi:

Everybody may do with this whatever he likes. Distribute me, if you find it interesting. The only thing I ask from you is not to make money at my expense. Just let me know, that’s pretty simple with today’s technology. If you don’t do it, it’s better I never get to know, because otherwise I will trash your car with the steering wheel, and then you can complain to your lawyers.

The essays are clearly written by copyleft advocates, and sometimes they suffer from an overly positive stance towards their subjects, when for instance musicians are said to generally favor P2P technology, or cloud computing is presented as having “no advantage” for users. What I missed, then, from the essays, are some numbers on the status quo, be it the amount people employing free/open source software or the count of publishing houses using copyleft licensing.

Overall, “Argentina Copyleft” is a good starter to get an overview of what is going on with the country’s cultural commons. Some chapters, especially those specific to Argentina, are worth reading more than others, though.

“Argentina Copyleft” is published under a Creative Commons by-sa license and is available as a free download in German from the Heinrich Böll Foundation and in Spanish from Vía Libre.

Flattr – the second month

I had a post on Flattr revenues in May, complete with some quotes summarizing early reactions by German bloggers. Since the post got quite some appreciation, here’s another one, this time with revenues of a whole month (June). Again I’m using Rivva’s “Leitmedien” index as a means of measuring medias’ importance within the German-speaking blogosphere.

Carta editors: “Flattr revenues in June: Thank you!”
201,22 € for group blog Carta (#6 on Rivva)

Flattr seems to be on its way to become a convincing business model for blogs.

Carta also has a post up with German Flattr charts for June, listing the most-flattred articles over the last month, saying:

Among the most-flattred topics in June were among others: Flattr, football, media critique, related rights [“Leistungsschutzrecht”]. Comparing the amount of flattr clicks with the previous month one can barely see a difference. The amount of clicks on top articles has only slightly increased. This means the growth of Flattr has decreased in June. The first Flattr hype seems over.

Markus Beckedahl: Flattr revenues in June
576,53 € for group blog netzpolitik.org (#7)

That’s more than I expected. We will see if it continues like this and if more Flattr users will lead to higher revenues. I am still not convinced that Flattr could refinance a blog like this in the medium term. That will need a mix of revenues, combining parameters like Flattr, advertising, donations and other stuff like giving talks.

Sebastian Heiser: Flattr earns us 998,50 Euros in June
998,50 € for newspaper taz (#15)

My personal impression from our Flattr balance in June is that readers don’t reward the most expensive investigation the most, not the best coverage and not the articles with the best background information from our specialized editors. The most rewards go to articles which aim at the favorite enemies of our readers: Neo-Nazis, high nobility, the newspaper “Bild”, the liberal-conservative federal government.

Jens Matheuszik: What Flattr earned Pottblog & Co. in June
14,48 € for blog Pottblog (#38)

There’s one thing that irks me about Flattr: I have written […] an article which I think is very helpful for a certain audience […]. This article, which also contained a Flattr button, also got linked to, among others by a blog with a Flattr button. Interestingly, this other blog, which actually just paraphrased my post and linked to me, got more Flattr clicks than the actual post. That’s somehow as if on pay-TV I would pay more for the preview of a good movie than for the actual movie.

Stefan Niggemeier: Now I’m flatt
352,89 for blog Stefan Niggemeier (#14)

That’s more than I expected […]. 100 Euros for an article like my commentary on the “She said ‘Reichsparteitag’” hysteria is a better royalty than many newspapers would have paid for an article.

Some other major blogs have reported their revenues as well:

law blog (#27): 247,68 €
iPhoneBlog.de (#232): 202,10 €
Blogwerk (publisher of several blogs): 201,17 €

I myself made 7,42 € in revenues from Flattr this month through six articles on i like patterns. A post reporting revenues and reactions of German bloggers like this one got most clicks (16) – probably because it was used by Flattr as credentials. But these 16 clicks only meant 2,76 € in revenues – while two clicks for my article on the campaign against the 2011 census already earned me 2,36 €. All in all, I made 0,26 € per flattr – an average reported by others as well.

From the first full month of Flattr experience we can already draw some trends. Of course, one important question is whether Flattr continues to expand. While Carta sees the service’s grow already in a decline, I would draw a more cautious and complex conclusion by looking at the revenues reported by two of the biggest earners, netzpolitik.org and taz. Netzpolitik is read mostly by an extremely ‘Net-savvy audience, while taz.de, online version of a leftist newspaper, probably has a less specialized readership.

Netzpolitik.org reports about 577 € for June, compared to 39 € on the last two days of May, i.e. revenues stayed at about 20 Euros per day. Taz.de on the other hand made nearly 1000 € in June, whereas they had reported only 143,55 € for the previous month’s twelve final days, i.e. taz.de about tripled their revenues in June. I would argue that what we see is Flattr growing not at the core (‘Net-savvy early adopters), but on the edges (less avant-garde readership). That’s not to say that we already see a mainstreamization of Flattr, but a diversification among its users.

The other big issue is whether Flattr revenues are just. Or, to use a less moralizing phrasing: Which articles (and which topics) get flattred? The quotes above already give some answers to this question: Readers flattr opinionated commentary rather than well-researched articles. Posts dealing with flattr get a lot of reward, but this trend seems to decline. Hot topics, especially those popular with the ‘Net-savvy media avant-garde, are leading the charts.

The statistics of the articles I wrote for Spreeblick only partially mirror this image:

49 – Activists plan constitutional complaint against 2011 census (31.05.)
20 – Governors sign media protection of minors treaty (11.06.)
14 – Campaign against 2011 census launched (10.06.)
12 – On the App Store or not on the App Store, that’s the question (09.06.)
11 – An alternative to Facebook (18.05.)
9 – The digital future of Europe (19.05.)
9 – EFF design basic rights for users of Facebook and co. (20.05.)
9 – Does Burma work on nuclear weapons? (04.06.)
8 – Those writing about environmental protection live in danger (24.06.)
7 – Gallo report: A victorious battle for copyright dogmatism (02.06.)
7 – Video interview with Eleanor Saitta: Before the surveillance camera, some people are more equal (08.06.)

Another five articles got flattred six or less times, but none of the posts I wrote for Spreeblick since the introduction of Flattr did not receive any reward.

My most-flattred article deals with the upcoming 2011 census (here’s an updated English version). It required relatively much research, but was kind of scoop – I was the first to report on the planned constitutional complaint. On spots #2 and #3 follow news articles on current political affairs, two opinion pieces on Apple’s App Store and Facebook rank 4th and 5th. There is no clear pattern visible in this ranking (which is not based on sufficient data of course).

My own articles aside, opinion pieces seem to fare well with Flattr users. Many seem to use the button as kind of a way of saying thank you to authors who expressed what they were already thinking. I, personally, try to reward writers for articles which offer me an unusual perspective, new insights – or an enjoyable phrasing. How do you use the Flattr button?