Return from the Abyss

When you allow yourself to take a break after killing yourself with work, the sad result is sheer laziness. Now that I have purged my soul of all apathy – and successfully beaten Super Mario Wii (thanks, Honey) – I am back full tilt into school and research. More open content on its way, since I have been trying to do a comprehensive review of Elinor Ostrom’s work (haha – there’s a lot).

Brief Hiatus – Finals Week

My friends, I bid you farewell for a days – I now go to crawl into a cave with my books and stuff my head for the final exams of my first semester of PhD training. Drop me a line in an email – it will help keep me awake :).

ad hoc Friday #3: Copyright and Copyleft – A Conflict or Coexistence?

I have been making the argument that the creative commons ShareAlike and other licenses are in fact different than copyright licenses and their intellectual property cousins, patents. I want to be specific in defining my approach: ShareAlike and other forms of the CC licenses resemble copyright laws in the sense that they are written in legal jargon consistent with the US constitution – which gives congress permission to grant rights to originators – and US law. These licenses do grant rights to the originators, but emphasize the sharing and distribution of ideas. Traditional copyrights and patents, etc primarily focus on the restriction of distribution, CC focuses on freeing distribution. Were these licenses already in existence in other realms of intellectual property (copyright, trademarks, patents, etc) there would have been no need to develop them. They were developed in response to the criminalization of the online culture of sharing permitting individuals to have access to free licensing of creative efforts by granting express blanket permissions to all users. I don’t want to be too technical here, because my purpose is not to debate the details of IP in its myriad forms, but to discuss the benefits or problems of a worldwide culture of sharing made possible by the Internet and the limits of this sharing.

The core questions are quite straightforward:

  • Is sharing fundamentally better than the alternative?
  • What are the limits of sharing?
  • Should art, science, inventions, services, etc. become the property of the commons? What should not be considered a part?
  • Should the commons become more global? Is it only effective locally? Where is the balance?
  • Cui Bouno? Who benefits? What are the benefits? How can we extend these benefits universally?
  • What are the shortcomings? How do we manage these failings? What institutions/apparatuses need to be innovated? What is already in existence? Do existing infrastructures need to be modified?
  • As we share, we become more transparent. What data should not be shared? Is full transparency desirable/possible? Should we expect full disclosure from politicians, businessmen, etc?

This discussion in comments here or on the ad hoc Friday Google Wave:

h2oneuron at googlewave dot com

Just ask to join the discussion, and I’ll put you on the Wave.

Open Source vs Patent System #2


…a patent system is more desirable for the protection of originators and inventors than a lack of one.

From reading my recent post, you might be tempted to think that I am anti-patent; on the contrary, I am pro-creativity and pro-sharing. I think that a patent system is more desirable for the protection of originators and inventors than a lack of one, but I am critical of the current system and its abuses. My contention is that the patent system as it currently stands is mired in backlog, litigation, and stifles real innovation and creativity. Additionally, I think that if you read my last post, you would see a link desert: I apologize for not taking the time to cite experts in my pursuit of knowledge, since this may have prevented you from seeing for yourself.

Patent Trolls

It seems as though the current patent system has become a mill for mass-producing intellectual property (a problem for the little guy) for the few and its true effectiveness is mostly restricted to those who have the capacity to leverage action through their legal apparatuses. Those who are startups with less cash on hand end up taking out large loans hoping that they will be able someday to pay them back with the return on their patents. It is especially an issue in software development and use of online tools: there is greater difficulty finding and establishing novelty in the Internet age. Due to the fact that the internet moves much faster than other human endeavors and that the culture of sharing is the de facto rule of law online, origination becomes even more difficult to establish. Most patent reviewers are overworked and underpaid which means that unless you have a more persuasive legal team – or do your patent applications in a place more favorable to your kind of patent – you have some serious barriers to obtaining and using your intellectual property.

Creative Commons License

On the other hand, a creative commons license deals away with a lot of this: it is free, attribution is paramount, licensing is almost unlimited, and money is taken out of the picture almost altogether. There are many options to your distribution of an idea, but most permit commercial use by others. With the removal of exclusive commercial use from the equation, the cost of the legal protection falls to almost zero while the ability to regain any of those costs depends completely on the overall benefit the creative project has for the market/community at large. The best products survive, rather than the most legally protected products.

Aside from an overall benefit to consumers in general, this is also better for markets in terms of the group-thinking that occurs between competitors: when innovators see what other competitors are doing, they innovate more rapidly. This leads to more competitors innovating more ideas, more ways of generating revenue with the same tools or sets of tools. This then increases market diversity, robustness, resilience, and creativity. It also means that your ability to leverage money is not as much a factor in deciding whether your idea “wins” or not – your success becomes more dependent on the product and the benefit it has for the market than on your ability to manage money.

CC and the Money

So how does one go about making money in a creative commons system?

This is the great part: there is no limitation on commercial use (unless the individual has specified it), only a limitation that the licensee cannot sell/patent the part that is already under the CC license. In short, you can do what you want, as long as you attribute the originator. That simple.

I know that open sourcing and creative commons licensing is not a silver bullet. Nevertheless, I think it is simply the best set of solutions that have been proposed. I am not expert in patents, intellectual property, or the production of inventions; however, as a scientist, I do understand the importance and necessity of origination and sharing/debating ideas. Without origination, no credit can be given where it is due; without openness, no real innovation can take place either.

More from IP and Open Source expert Lawrence Lessig (here, here, and here)

Stay tuned – this week’s ad hoc Friday will incorporate many of these ideas.

Rick Smith


Open Sourcing vs. Patenting



Open Source/Open Access

The fundamental concept behind open sourcing is access to, production of, and distribution of a project that is unrestricted and free. Openness does not imply that resources such as time, talents, and ATP (yes, I’m a biologist) are not expended – only that money (extrinsic motivators) be more or less taken out of the picture. In this sense, open sourcing is really all about developing common pool resources – resources that a group of individuals agrees to share, develop, and protect in a common fashion.

Openness does not imply that resources such as time, talents, and ATP are not expended – only that money be more or less taken out of the picture.

No commons is without rules: in fact, the most successful commons have very strong rules which the community agree to abide by. In the case of the traditional sense of free (read: “open source”) software, the GNU license is thought of as the core body of rules that users agree to abide by. Fundamentally, this set of rules is based on a philosophy that creativity and participation are renewable, unlimited resources which will be continually developed if there is sufficient trust.


The exact opposite philosophical approach is that of patenting. Patents assume that there is a shortage of 1) ideas, 2) altruistic, participatory behavior, 3) trustworthy use by others, and provide a means of protecting the resource for the 4) express monetary use (also limited) of that resource by one individual or organization. The obvious attraction to patents is the promise of monetary reward for the effective exploitation of a specific resource/piece of information in order to successfully compete in a free market (also driven by monetary value). Unfortunately, though patents fundamentally protect the rights of the originator, they tend to be prohibitively expensive to produce, license, and enforce. The allure is that once the patent is obtained, you will be able to recoup those costs by licensing or protected production.

Patents fundamentally protect the rights of the originator, but tend to be prohibitively expensive to produce, license, and enforce.

This whole system is based on a definition of economics that is inherently narrow – most people experience little or no intrinsic value (utility) from money; it is the definition of monetary value as an economic utility and its (current) universality that drive people to desire it. The very philosophy behind Open movements opposes this definition and identifies more intrinsic and meaningful sources of value/utility for individuals and organizations.


My goal in describing the dichotomy between these two systems is not to diminish the importance of protecting intellectual property, only to identify that building walls does not build innovation, but rather causes stratification. Access to ideas enables people to disagree with them and propose alternative solutions. The access that academicians have to knowledge about the universe has not diminished the variety of ideas nor the proliferation of ways and means of doing things. On the contrary, the greater access academicians have to each other’s work(s) leads to greater debate and discussion which inherently leads to greater innovation and advancement of intellectual pursuits. This is the same with other intellectual property pursuits as greater access does not somehow diminish the development of ideas: when more people can share their ideas and debate them, greater work can be accomplished.


The obvious caveat which the academic world has more or less dealt with is that of attribution: when a scientist proposes a theory and works on it, it becomes their unique property, though others have access to debate and or improve it. This is a subject open to much debate in the private sector: how to protect the originator of the idea/process etc. I want to address this in the next couple of posts, but here’s a quick spoiler: I think the solution is protection of attribution with full sharing of the data/product.

ad hoc Friday #2: Open Source Transit


There's got to be a better way...


Anyone who has ever been just a little late for work knows the scenario that traps thousands of commuters every day – gridlock. Call it a traffic jam, sai che, or tráfico, the result is the same: you’ve just wasted 30 minutes of your life. New GPS modules enable you to avoid serious traffic, but are limited to the effectiveness and quality of the data your provider has access to. Additionally, your provider only has access to traffic data – this means that your computer may adjust the route according current conditions, but this does not include any information about the routes other motorists are using. In the end, you’ve got a pool of limited mobility, a pool that more often than not occurs for no apparent reason.


Traffic and transportation experts suggest that many of these “phantom” traffic jams are caused by the combined, spontaneous ripple effects of many small poor choices which add up to systemic blockage of traffic. Mathematical models suggest that these kinds of wave strongly resemble explosions: an initial event (or events), propagation, exhaustion of fuel, dispersal (more on the science of phantom jams here).


Some advocate installation of monitors in every vehicle to track vehicle positions and speeds, essentially government control of traffic. While these experts are well-intentioned, they underestimate the resistence and resentment the would occur in the public eye – no one wants to be controlled. Rather than create more bureaucracy and red tape, my proposition is to open the system up for the public to interact with. Create an open source transit system.

How would it work?

Routes, maps, and transit info posted online. Users contact each other and communicate desired info, creating a ridesharing network. This collection of online metadata allows understanding of not only traffic conditions (current methods) but also the actual routes that flow into and out of that pool of traffic. This enables a systems-level approach to traffic management, complete with stocks (traffic), inflows (route entry), outflows (destinations), and regulatory feedback loops. Apps (open source or proprietary) could then be developed more efficiently integrating waypoints and destinations, permitting cities to adapt traffic lanes to accomodate most common routes.

Not only does this encourage public and private organization to positively affect traffic, but it allows the public to independently choose more intelligent routes to their destination. Naturally, this system would only get better with the profusion of GPS and self-reported data. In addition, integration with current traffic data (stop light schedules/sensors, etc) enables an enhanced smart grid for traffic, permits more intelligent, dynamic urban design, and encourages public to be involved in alleviating gridlock, etc.

Now it’s your turn!

So let me know what you think – perhaps we can turn Los Angeles into a commuter’s paradise. If nothing else, you’ll be getting from point A to point B in a more informed fashion.

Thoughts on Practical Openness

I usually write about open source from a theoretical rather than a practical perspective. This is partially because I am still a student, and do not want to give the impression that I have more experience than I actually do. In some ways, this is a form of humility which conveys my recognition that I am relatively ignorant of the world. However, it is often the case that this humility may be construed as ignorance – not that I’m holding back, but more that I simply do not know the subject matter at hand. I want to jot down (while it’s still fresh in my mind) some thoughts on the practical aspects of transparency, access, and participation – the core foundations of open sourcing.

Transparency is professing, expressing what is in our heads and giving others a look. This requires a relatively thick skin, and an honest recognition that we know very little. For myself, I frequent share everything I can about science and reveal all within my power and the power of those listening. Naturally, there are limits, but they are the exception not the rule: to posses and not share is to horde, and I am no horder.

Access refers to allowance, permission – a lack of limitations. I have found that access depends on personal understanding (scientific knowledge, philosophical grasp, language, etc) and your specific skillset. For example, though the open source programming movement is open to anyone (transparency) I do not yet have full access to contribution in Firefox because I do not possess the skillset necessary to do so. Were the requirement and English or Chinese language requirement, I’d have little difficulty. Access, in this sense depends on a combination of personal effort and legal freedoms – the counter example being Windows, were a competent programmer has the language skills necessary, but lacks the legal access to contribute.

Participation is my favorite part, and seems to be dependent on one’s social connections. It really means getting outside yourself, getting to know others and doing things that help others (perhaps in addition to oneself). Participation/service is ennobling, and whether the effect is neurological (limbic stimulation) or something more, it helps people be better. I love collaboration in the laboratory because every researcher possess different skills and everyone’s contribution helps in discovery of the new. Collaboration in and out of the classroom also collectively boosts the group’s performance and understanding of key concepts.

I know that I don’t have much experience outside of my training in molecular biology, genetics, Chinese, and service, nevertheless I have had experience with the principles of open sourcing of ideas and it’s opposite. I believe that the former is superior in every way – democratization can only serve to continue to promote itself and the end result, in my opinion, will be a culture of shared vision and shared responsibility.