Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, August 19, 2010

From Open Business Models To An Economy Of The Commons

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What does it take for open business models to become an economy of the Commons? What are the pros and cons of a system based on peer production? How do open business models compare with the traditional economic system based on intellectual property and copyright?

Photo credit: GPRC, remixed by Robin Good

I have recently shot a small number of very interesting videos with Michel Bauwens, the peer-to-peer movement evangelist and founder / publisher of the P2PFoundation and in one of these I asked Michel to share his vision of such economic system.

How does he picture a system based on cooperation and collaborative approaches where individuals create and distribute value to their peers?

As he suggests, the key strategy which allows open business models to gradually migrate to a successful economy of the Commons (which are immaterial goods that are everyone's property like knowledge, code and design) is the emergence of companies that make use of the Commons and then sell the extra value they add to Commons in the marketplace.

Such business approach does not work by leveraging the same approaches of our present system such as classical job employment, wages and copyright. Instead, the new economy of the Commons grounds itself on three new components:

  1. Distributed communities of passionate individuals working together spontaneously on
  2. collaborative platform and Internet technologies and by
  3. the foundations, for-benefit institutions that make their know-how available for free.

Here is the full video interview (with a full text transcription):


Open Business Models: The Importance of Peer Production - Michel Bauwens

Duration: 11' 13''

Full English Text Transcription

Michel Bauwens: Hello, my name is Michel Bauwens.

I'm Belgian, I live in Thailand and I founded the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives.

What we do is we study:

In other words, all the modalities where people can aggregate around the Internet using collaborative platforms and produce something of value together. This has an application on business and economics, which I can summarize under two concepts:

  1. Open business models, which refers to practices of individual firms,
  2. the economy of the Commons is how this new system fits in the broader economy as a whole.

I would like to discuss a few features of open business models.


Open Business Models


First, something about the structure.

What is typical about open business models is that they involve a collaboration between a community, using a Commons.

This means:

On the other hand, an entrepreneurial coalition.

In other words, companies who make use of that Commons and who try to market some extra value in the marketplace. How does that exactly work?

This is an interesting point, because, of course, this collaboration has a few characteristics that make it different from a classic business model where you hire people, you give them a wage, you protect intellectual copyrights, etc.

Let me review a few of these points together.


1. The Commons


What do we mean by Commons?

This is something that does not belong to anybody in particular, that belongs to the whole community, of participants, of users, sometimes to the whole world.

It depends, you have different types of commons.

This means that it is usually protected by some kind of a license, like the General Public License or the Creative Commons or some other type of license which says that you can use a material, you can change it, but any change will also be part of that Commons.


2. Community


That community will usually be a mix of:

  • Volunteers, who freely add contributions for a number of reasons.
  • Paid contributors, because these companies that will work with that Commons, that code, or these designs will also hire people to do development work and build a business around it.
  • Collaborative platforms - this is a very important point.

    We have to have some kind of technology, a platform which allows people to work together under certain rules.


    3. Foundations


  • Another aspect is very specific.

    I call it "for-benefit institutions." These are usually foundations.

    If you look at open software, most of these projects have a foundation:

    • Gnome Foundation,
    • Apache Foundation,
    • Eclipse Foundation,
    • Linux Foundation

    I could go on.

    These are called the FLOSS foundations.

    I am fairly certain that when we have a more mature development of open hardware, that the same structure will be applied.

You don't have two players. You actually have three players.

You have:

  • The community,

  • the for-benefit institution which manages the infrastructure of corporation.

    They do not tell people how to work and what to do, but they protect the infrastructure.

  • Then you have the corporations, companies and coops that are using those Commons.

Some interesting points.

When I talk about the Commons, I am talking, in this particular context, about immaterial Commons.

What is common is not the products. It is not the cars or the fridges or the solar panels, because they cost money, and you have to find a way to find investment and pay people, at least in this type of society we have now.

We are talking about the things that can be shared for free, because they can be reproduced digitally:

  • Knowledge,
  • code and
  • design.


Companies and Open Business Models: The Cons...


What are the consequences for a company that engages in this type of production?

One of the consequences is that the primary material itself, the code or the designs, are not really marketable, because they are shared with the whole community, they can be copied.

It is pretty hard to sell, because the market, basically, is something that has supply and demand.

When something is in abundance, the market does not quite work for this particular part.

What a company will do is they:

  • Will use the commons, add something to it, and sometimes they use something called dual licensing.

    That means that, let's say, 75 percent of the software is open, and then they will add some extra software that is proprietary.

  • Might decide to build derivative services - training, integration, insurance, guarantees - things that businesses want that are around the primary material.

This is an important point. A part of the value becomes free.

This is the point of the book Free by Chris Anderson, which explains why it makes sense today to give away the primary material for free.

You can do that by:

  • Protecting your intellectual copyright,
  • common copyright, open copyright - which is what I am talking about.

One possible negative consequence of working this way is that you are voluntarily, as a company, not taking up the benefits of copyright.

If you think of a company like Microsoft, or you think about Pharma, they can ask a lot of money above the production price of a piece of software or a medicine because it is stated under a copyright.

A lot of the money they get is not from the value of the product; it is the value of the protection of the product through legislation and the State.

This is something you have to give up when you do open business models and this has certain consequences.


...And The Pros


On the positive side, let's assume you are competing with a proprietary company who is asking a monopoly price based on intellectual property. It seems clear that you can outcompete those companies, because you don't have to charge for the property right.

Another advantage is that your research and development, instead of being just the people inside your company, becomes the whole community.

Basically, you are sharing innovation through some kind of a corporate and community commons, where you do not just get one stream of innovation; you get a lot more innovation.

I would guess that another advantage, which is not a certainty but often occurs, is that the market becomes so much larger. Let me explain that.

If you have a proprietary strategy, you have only your product, and you have to pay everyone.

I want to give an example, to make sure that is understood.

  • Let's take the geographical information systems.

    In Europe, every country protects its national geographical data - which is public, it is done by governments - and then they license it to a few companies.

    These companies may make quite some money, but because of the licensing they exclude an enormous amount of other people who cannot work with the same data.

    This is a recipe for a limited marketplace.

    Take the situation in the United States, where the National Oceanic Administration and other outfits decide to have open geographic data.

    There is no licensing fee, and this means that everybody can participate in marketing and creating added-value services on top of this geographic commons geographic data commons.

    I hope you see the point here which is: you can make guaranteed money in a small market, which is perhaps good for these few players who have a monopoly, but it is maybe not so good for business in general and not so good for society in general.

    While, on the other hand, if the open business model works, what you have is a much larger marketplace based on this public and common data. In other words, a lot more smaller enterprises can enter the game because the threshold is so much lower.

  • If we look at open-source software, we can give an example of these different dynamics.

    We can take proprietary software - Microsoft and those quite big companies - but let's take Drupal.

    Drupal is an open-source content-management system.

    I personally do not really know any company that's famous in Drupal, but I heard from people active in the field that there are tens of thousands of developers working on Drupal.

    You can see the different model.

    Nobody knows the company, yet the economy around Drupal, around the Drupal commons, is a thriving commons and is creating a lot of jobs for a lot of people.


Additional Selected Resources on Open Business Models

Video clips originally recorded by Robin Good for MasterNewMedia. First published on August 19th, 2010 as "From Open Business Models To An Economy Of The Commons".

About the author


Michel Bauwens (1958) is a Belgian integral philosopher and peer-to-peer theorist. He has worked as an internet consultant, information analyst for the United States Information Agency, information manager for British Petroleum (where he created one of the first virtual information centers), and is former editor-in-chief of the first European digital convergence magazine, the Dutch language Wave.

To know more about Michel Bauwens you can visit these sections of the P2P Foundation wiki:

Photo credits:
Open Business Models - itestro
...And The Pros - Scott Maxwell

Robin Good -
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posted by on Thursday, August 19 2010, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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