Why Code Makes Money, Not Content.

Getting the FOSS Model to Work for Creative Professions

I was trying to convince a friend of mine with an independent record label that he should use his website to stream music and mine Monero. With his fan base, he could easily bring in an extra few hundred dollars each month just by adding a few lines of code to his site. He wasn’t interested.

Musicians and artists have a deep distrust of the tech industry, and with good reason. Content is what makes the Internet go, yet creators see almost none of the revenue. Why are paths so wildly divergent for programmers and for every other creative profession on the Net?

Scene from ROSECODE, an interactive, open source cyberpunk creative franchise.

The conventional wisdom is that digitization of content (i.e. that magical transformation of paper and vinyl into ones and zeroes) is what destroyed artists’ livelihoods. Yet programmers have always worked in a digital realm, and the economic value of their skills continues to increase. Are programmers just that much smarter or better at what they do than everybody else?

Here’s an alternative explanation: by giving away much of their work through free software and share-alike licenses, the software industry created a store of capital that fostered further innovation. Imagine being able to stroll into a hardware store and pick up the framing for a house — the lumber, the flooring, the insulation, and the paint. You might have to pay a licensed electrician to do the wiring, or hire a custom cabinet designer to build your dream kitchen, but without spending a dime you already have a structure that will keep the rain out. That’s sort of how open source works.

The Linux Foundation estimates the value of the Linux Fedora Distribution, conservatively, at $10.8 billion. That amount is dwarfed by Bitcoin’s $95.49 billion market cap, not to mention the economic value of 75 million websites hosted on Wordpress, the world’s leading website platform. Facebook doesn’t release React Native as open source because of its kind corporate heart; it releases it under the BSD license because in a marketplace where application developers mostly get to choose their tools, free has won. It has no choice.

It might be the most unexpected irony of all — a system agnostic or hostile to the aims of capitalism helps birth the most vibrant, exuberant, and lasting economic boom the post-millennial era has seen. But before we go wringing our hands about whether all these stock options and 22-year-olds driving leased BMWs are a good thing, let’s take a step back.

It would be a good thing, in fact, it might be a really, really good thing, if other creative professions had access to some of the same infrastructure to generate wealth. Creative Commons is often put forth as the humanities’ equivalent to free software, but it’s not enough. To be effective as a resource, artists cannot simply give their work away. They need community. Not some vague ideal of community. They need real online spaces where they can come together and share, collaborate, and exchange ideas. In short, they need a repo.

The ROSECODE project and ICO aims to build just such a repo — and an open franchise for its cyberpunk science fiction storyline and characters:

“What if creative projects worked the same way as open source software?
Every science fiction fan is familiar with the concept of “franchises.” Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica. Take your pick. These are our modern myths — the stories we return to again and again.
But they are not ours. A giant corporation can, if it wishes, sue you for your choice of Halloween costume. You may attend conventions or write fan fiction, but in the end your work belongs to someone else.
ROSECODE uses the power of Creative Commons licensing to forge a new paradigm: a shared mythos, a consensual creative universe where anyone is free to invent, tell stories, build games, or film a movie — for fun or for profit. What if you and your collaborators had a built-in audience for new work, and a built-in cast of characters?

[Full disclosure: I am one of several contributors to the ROSECODE project.]

Client-side mining technologies offer the potential for ad-free user experiences that reward and monetize high quality content. This is a time when, if you own a server, independent of ad revenue, you can actually make money by bringing users to your site. Techies, now might be a good time to make friends with artists and writers, if you have not already.

I love science fiction and I love the work we have created to date, but for me this project is bigger than just one story. I have to ask the question:

  • What if there were open source Westerns? And mysteries? And fantasy epics? And war dramas, nautical adventures, and soap operas?
  • What if anyone was free to share the contents of their imagination not in the hopes of selling to a giant corporation, but with a community of like-minded game developers, illustrators, script writers, friends, and fans?
  • What if there was a place online for such communities to gather and work together?

Github may not be ideal, but it’s a start.

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