Critique of the Peer Production License

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Peer Production License

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The Critique of Stefan Meretz

From Stefan Meretz, in Keimform:

"Michel Bauwens has made a proposal for a “median choice of socialist licenses” which is based on the Copyfarleft-License of Dymtri Kleiner. In this post I try to critically analyze his proposal.

At the beginning Bauwens’ thesis is: “the more communistic the sharing license we use, the more capitalistic the practice”. Being a prominent example the GNU GPL is called a “communist license”. Is there something in that?

At first one has to understand the nature licenses have under the given conditions. Licenses are permissions, thus contracts, “granted by a party (‘licensor’) to another party (‘licensee’) as an element of an agreement between those parties”. It bases on the precondition of excluding all other people by the “rightholder”. The power of exclusion given by law can be converted into a “permission for all” by way of tricky constructions combined with the obligation to put derived works under the GPL as well (copyleft principle).

Herein is nothing communist. The logic of exclusion is partially reversed and therefore new spaces of commons oriented practices can be created. Better than nothing. The license itself only protects these practices against proprietary destructions. From my point of view this can not be more under the given conditions. The outer world is ruled by the logics of valuation and exclusion, and every free zone to self-determine other practices has to be wrested from these dominant logics. Embryonic forms, precisely.

The second part of the thesis “…the more capitalistic the practice” fails as well. There is no comparative of “capitalistic”. If you replace “capitalistic” with “commodity-based”, then is becomes even clearer: Something is a commodity or not. Free software, for instance, isn’t a commodity. It can be appropriated and used by everyone, even by big corporations. However, they cannot transform the free software into a commodity, since this is prevented by the GPL. But they can use the software in order to realize their business models in another fields. This free use is a thorn in Bauwens side. He wants the commons to only be commercially used by those who have contributed beforehand.

From my perspective the presentation of the GPL as “communist” is wrong, but this attribution has the function to propagate a milder license variant which then is called “socialist”: the PPL (Peer-Production-License). This license only grants external access to the resources to those who are using them non-commercially, while internally unlimited exploitation is allowed. The divide intern/extern usually refers to a firm. If external parties want to use the resources commercially, then they have to pay a license fee or make other contributions.

Is only exchange reciprocal?

In order to justify the PPL the argument of reciprocity is claimed. The “communist” GPL is non-reciprocal, while the “socialist” PPL demands reciprocity. The word reciprocity nicely blurs what is actually meant: exchange. In fact, the GPL breaks the logic of exchange, while the PPL requires and enforces it — namely not only the exchange logic itself, but the societally valid form of equivalent exchange. Someone who wants to keep “the surplus value into the commons sphere” has to act that way, whereby “commons sphere” is a euphemism for an ordinary company.

The notion of reciprocity is misused in an ideologically blurring way. Licenses are never reciprocal, only people can behave that way. Thus, the question can only be whether licenses encourage reciprocity between people or not, and if so, in what way. Then the evaluation of GPL and PPL looks completely different.

The GPL creates and promotes direct reciprocity between people, because no exchange and also no compelled contribution stands between people. By contrast, the PPL limits direct reciprocity by putting exchange or compulsory contributions between people if they want to use resources commercially. But what is commercial? It is the same discussion which has taken place around the NC module of the Creative Commons Licenses. There the insight is: The NC module undermines sharing, and the same applies to the PPL (although trying to dissociate from the CC-NC).

To sharpen the point: Both licenses support reciprocal behavior of people. With respect to GPL it is positive reciprocity, because in this case it only counts how people behave socially and which rules they agree upon in a self-determined way, in order to bring all participants together. Concerning the PPL it is negative reciprocity, since a portion of people are subjugated to the alien form of exchange of equivalents (money) and are excluded from the cooperation to this end. Thus, the GPL is rather in accordance with the commons idea of self-determining own rules than the PPL.

How does the PPL work?

The core rule of the PPL is contained in this paragraph:

You may exercise the rights granted in Section 3 for commercial purposes only if: i. You are a workerowned business or workerowned collective; and ii. all financial gain, surplus, profits and benefits produced by the business or collective are distributed among the workerowners

This snippet expresses the abridged critique of capitalism which I elaboratedly criticized elsewhere. In short: The critique is not directed against the way of production — the commodity production — but against the type of distribution within the (basically accepted) commodity production. In this sense the label “socialist” is well adequate, if one understands socialism as a form of commodity production, where the distribution is organized differently than in free capitalism. This, however, leaves all basic capitalist forms like exchange logic and money untouched (even a state is mandatory in this scenario). This problem — sometimes labeled as fetishism — is simply ignored.

But what does this rule mean practically? The vague term of workerowned business or workerowned collective obviously means cooperatives or firms, where the owners are workers at the same time. The financial gain, surplus, profits and benefits should be distributed among the workers. First, this is impossible and, second, this is not crucial. It is impossible, because part of the income has to be reinvested in order to keep the company competitive. You have to pay homage to the commodity fetish, and doing so the whole income or more (=debt) has to be invested in case of unproductive firms. It is not crucial, because the coercion to exploit and therefore the logics of exclusion completely remain untouched.

More than that: The PPL generally allows cooperatives or worker firms to make use of the resource pool. However, cooperative A is competitor of cooperative B, but does allow B to exploit A and potentually to out-compete A. It is completely ignored, that cooperatives or worker firms are ordinary companies, which have to entirely match the competition criteria of the market logic. Companies are not commons, regardless of whether being a cooperative or a worker owned firm. The intended goal to keep the resources within the commons sphere can not be reached this way.

In principle this is clear to Michel Bauwens, nevertheless he dreams to link “the commons to a enterpreneurial coalition of ethical market entitities (Coops and other models)” keeping “the surplus value entirely within the sphere of commoners/cooperators instead of leaking out to the multinations”. Smartly commons and cooperatives are intermingled via the involved persons. Hereby a “sphere of the good” is defined. It is good what contributes to this sphere, and this is the goal of the PPL which “allows commoners to create their own market entities, keeping the surplus value into the commons sphere”. Shortly said: Not the big, but the small ones should get the profit — as shown it is just about a different distribution.

However, this sphere isn’t a commons sphere, instead it is simply a coalition of companies of self-defined “good” and “ethical” people. To behave good and ethical is a nice thing. However, it misses the efficacy of the rigid operational mode of commodity production. If you don’t succumb this logic you are out — having an ethic or not. Ethic isn’t a functional core of the market logic, an ethic has to stay externally and therefore finally always gets the short end of the stick. What I find severe is that the efficiacy of exclusive logic is not recognized or underestimated, so that in the end structural problems are veiled as personal deficits or conflicts between people. If a woman with a child has to leave a firm, then not because she reduces the overall performance, but because she allegedly does not fit into the team — this is the practice (personal report of an alternative artisanal firm).

Transformation through counter-economy?

Finally, Michel Bauwens concept of transformation is doubtful. He want’s to create a “counter-economy” with a “for-benefit circulation of value”. However, this counter-economy is an economy and value is nothing else than this: a societal measure of competitive productivity, which is also valid for a counter-economy, in order to realize “value” at all.

From my perspective a societal transformation can not happen via building-up a counter-economy. It is not possible to out-compete capitalism (or the bad guys), so being better than capitalism on its own terrain to finally get rid of it. It is a contradiction in terms.

There is not way via changing distribution provided that a transformation is the goal, but there is a way via the enforcement of a new way of production, of a new social logic of producing our livelihood. This new social logic can not be build up using forms of the old social logic, namely the logic of exclusion of commodity production. It is unavoidable that the old logic exploits the outcome of the new logic, because the results can be freely appropriated. But this an external relation while the contrary logics persist on their own. More over: capitalism must create new free spaces to foster the new logics, in order to make them exploitable. But as soon as the new approaches are transformed into old forms of valuation and commodification — meaning in an internal relation — they will decay.

Thus, from my viewpoint the PPL is not about accessing a counter-economy, it is about accessing the economy. This is legitimate but has not much to do with societal transformation. Or, more explicitely: It has as much to do with societal transformation as a stock corparation implementing peer-production within its own walls for competitive reasons (which actually takes places). Here practices get established which can become important in case of a total break down of the old system and then could also function outside the valuation logic. Could.

In order to still present an outlook on how the economy, which is reproduced beforehand, can be left, Bauwens offers:

“Hence, as this process strengthens, and is accompanied by the growth of social and political power, the circulation of capital is replaced by a full circulation of the commons. The phase transition has effectively occured.”

In the end politics should do it. How else can the circulation of capital be replaced by the circulation of commons? But what can this commons circulation be? The state implements commonism by decision? This can hardly be concidered.

So is the PPL bad? No. It is simply a possiblitity to create coalitions of small enterprises and freelancers. If they create products for free use for people who cannot get them other ways, then this is fine. However, others are doing this too, e.g. Microsoft. Insofar it is a general trend when openess becomes a competitive factor. It offers companies and freelancers an opportunity to use a shared pool of resources to better ensure the own existence within the old commodity logic. This is indirectly good for the commons as well, but nothing more.

A new mode of production cannot emerge from these practices. A societal transformation will not be brought forward by the PPL, or indirectly only as much as normal companies do by using peer-production methods to improve their competitiveness. We will even experience completely different models in the future." (http://keimform.de/2014/socialist-licenses/)


First Response by Michel Bauwens

Via [1]

Stefan Meretz produced a critique of the Peer Production License, or more generically, Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, in the Keimform blog, to which I promised to respond.

Unfortunately, the critique is rather weak and misleading, so our responses will be rather short and inserted inline. Our responses are in bold and b-quote.

For context, I support the PPL, not in its full detail, but as a first of a kind, Commons-Based Reciprocity License (the concept is from Primavera de Filippi and Miguel Veira).

The key argument is the following: the present fully-sharing open licenses which allow unrestricted commercial exploitation create a ‘communism of capital’, i.e. a sphere of open knowledge, code and design, which is subsumed to the present dominant political economy. But what we need is an autonomous sphere of peer production, in which commoners and peer producers can create their own livelyhood, while staying in the sphere of the commons. In other words, we need a ‘capital for the commons’. The best way to achieve that is to converge the sphere of immaterial commons contributions, with a sphere of cooperative accumulation through which the surplus value can stay within the sphere of commons/cooperative production.

This is why we need a new type of licensing.

So, without further ado, Stefan Meretz writes:

“At first one has to understand the nature licenses have under the given conditions. Licenses are permissions, thus contracts, “granted by a party (‘licensor’) to another party (‘licensee’) as an element of an agreement between those parties”. It bases on the precondition of excluding all other people by the “rightholder”. The power of exclusion given by law can be converted into a “permission for all” by way of tricky constructions combined with the obligation to put derived works under the GPL as well (copyleft principle). Herein is nothing communist. The logic of exclusion is partially reversed and therefore new spaces of commons oriented practices can be created. Better than nothing. The license itself only protects these practices against proprietary destructions. From my point of view this can not be more under the given conditions. The outer world is ruled by the logics of valuation and exclusion, and every free zone to self-determine other practices has to be wrested from these dominant logics. Embryonic forms, precisely.”

MB: This first critique is rather weak. Indeed, I am not talking about the legal, contractual basis of the GPL and similar licenses, but on the social logic that they enable, which is: it allows anybody to contribute, and it allows anybody to use. This is both consistent with Marx’s defintion of communism, and with the definition I use, that of communal shareholding by Alan Page Fiske. This logic of course only exists in the realm of abundant digital information, but it exists within the sphere of the political economy of capital. To deny this on the grounds of legal technicalities seems to me a feeble argument.

The second part of the thesis “…the more capitalistic the practice” fails as well. There is no comparative of “capitalistic”. If you replace “capitalistic” with “commodity-based”, then is becomes even clearer: Something is a commodity or not. Free software, for instance, isn’t a commodity. It can be appropriated and used by everyone, even by big corporations. However, they cannot transform the free software into a commodity, since this is prevented by the GPL. But they can use the software in order to realize their business models in another fields. This free use is a thorn in Bauwens side. He wants the commons to only be commercially used by those who have contributed beforehand.

MB: This is also very weak, since I am not saying and never said, that the GPL turns free sofrware into a commodity. But what I’m saying, and what nobody can deny, is that non-commodified free software is subsumed to the capitalist economy that uses it. There is a thriving commercial company of products and services which is using and is based on GPL-generated code, as there is on open design. 75% of Linux developers are paid by commercial companies operating in the capitalist marketplace.

From my perspective the presentation of the GPL as “communist” is wrong, but this attribution has the function to propagate a milder license variant which then is called “socialist”: the PPL (Peer-Production-License). This license only grants external access to the resources to those who are using them non-commercially, while internally unlimited exploitation is allowed. The divide intern/extern usually refers to a firm. If external parties want to use the resources commercially, then they have to pay a license fee or make other contributions.

MB: The GPL effectively enables a social logic of unlimited use, including by multinational companies. The peer production license resticts it. From my point of view this makes it a stronger and not a milder license. Let me point out that I do not take the PPL as perfect, but as a new kind of Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, whose detailed modalities can very well differ from the original PPL. Such licenses fully allow commercial exploitation, but ask for reciprocity. Think of a traditional indigenous community using a GPL of similar. This means any commercial entity can use the knowledge and commercialize it, without any benefit or profit-sharing with the creators of the knowledge. A CBRL would simply ask for reciprocity and would allow these traditional communities to generate autonomous living and livelyhoods, something which is harder to do with the GPL.

Is only exchange reciprocal? In order to justify the PPL the argument of reciprocity is claimed. The “communist” GPL is non-reciprocal, while the “socialist” PPL demands reciprocity. The word reciprocity nicely blurs what is actually meant: exchange. In fact, the GPL breaks the logic of exchange, while the PPL requires and enforces it — namely not only the exchange logic itself, but the societally valid form of equivalent exchange. Someone who wants to keep “the surplus value into the commons sphere” has to act that way, whereby “commons sphere” is a euphemism for an ordinary company.

MB: This is the first valid critique. Indeed, the PPL / CBRL would indeed limit the non-reciprocity for for-profit entities, but no, Stefan is wrong, it does not demand equivalent exchange, but only some form of negotiated reciprocity. The important aspect is to generate a flow of realized value, necessary for social reproduction, from the sphere of capital accumulation to the sphere of the commons. The second aspect is organizational. It promotes the self-organisation of an ethical economy, and makes those who want to join it, conscious of that fact, including for-profit companies which can decide to ally with the ethical enterpreneurial coalition.

The notion of reciprocity is misused in an ideologically blurring way. Licenses are never reciprocal, only people can behave that way. Thus, the question can only be whether licenses encourage reciprocity between people or not, and if so, in what way. Then the evaluation of GPL and PPL looks completely different.The GPL creates and promotes direct reciprocity between people, because no exchange and also no compelled contribution stands between people.

MB: This is absolutely wrong, the GPL doesn’t demand nor create direct reciprocity between people. It is entirely possible to use GPL material without any reciprocity, as the overwhelming majority of its users actually do. But the GPL requires what anthropologist call ‘general reciprocity’, i.e. at the collective level, a minimum of contributions is needed to sustain the system. But there is absolutely no requirement for direct reciprocity. The reciprocity is between the individual and the system as a whole. A coder or wikipedia contributor cannot expect any return from any particular individual but only expects the benefits of the whole system, which depend only on a general flow of contributions.

By contrast, the PPL limits direct reciprocity by putting exchange or compulsory contributions between people if they want to use resources commercially. But what is commercial? It is the same discussion which has taken place around the NC module of the Creative Commons Licenses. There the insight is: The NC module undermines sharing, and the same applies to the PPL (although trying to dissociate from the CC-NC).

MB: The PPL only limits non-recicprocal use by for-profit companies. It does not prohibit commercial exploitation but actually encourages it, while the Non-Commercial CC license actually prohibits it. The NC does not undermine sharing, but commercialisation. The PPL encourages and allows both sharing and commercialisation.

To sharpen the point: Both licenses support reciprocal behavior of people. With respect to GPL it is positive reciprocity, because in this case it only counts how people behave socially and which rules they agree upon in a self-determined way, in order to bring all participants together. Concerning the PPL it is negative reciprocity, since a portion of people are subjugated to the alien form of exchange of equivalents (money) and are excluded from the cooperation to this end. Thus, the GPL is rather in accordance with the commons idea of self-determining own rules than the PPL.

MB: From the above refutations follow that this conclusion is entirely erroneous. In fact, there is only self-determination of the contributory process in the GPL context, but full alienation to capital in the surrounding commercial sphere. By contrast the PPL not only allows full self-determination in the contributory sphere, but requires self-management in the cooperative sphere of self-reproduction, something which is much more difficult with the GPL, since it subsumes livelyhoods to capital accumulation.



Second Response by Michel Bauwens

Stefan Meretz writes:

"Michel Bauwens ... dreams to link “the commons to a enterpreneurial coalition of ethical market entitities (Coops and other models)” keeping “the surplus value entirely within the sphere of commoners/cooperators instead of leaking out to the multinationals”. Smartly commons and cooperatives are intermingled via the involved persons. Hereby a “sphere of the good” is defined. It is good what contributes to this sphere, and this is the goal of the PPL which “allows commoners to create their own market entities, keeping the surplus value into the commons sphere”. Shortly said: Not the big, but the small ones should get the profit — as shown it is just about a different distribution. However, this sphere isn’t a commons sphere, instead it is simply a coalition of companies of self-defined “good” and “ethical” people. To behave good and ethical is a nice thing. However, it misses the efficacy of the rigid operational mode of commodity production. If you don’t succumb this logic you are out — having an ethic or not. Ethic isn’t a functional core of the market logic, an ethic has to stay externally and therefore finally always gets the short end of the stick. What I find severe is that the efficicacy of exclusive logic is not recognized or underestimated, so that in the end structural problems are veiled as personal deficits or conflicts between people."

MB: Indeed, my proposal sharply distinguishes the sphere of the abundant commons, and the sphere of cooperatives and ethical companies which deal with the allocation of scarce resources. But they converge in the workers who are both contributors to the commons, and realize their livelihood in the cooperative sphere. But Stefan fetishizes the efficiency of commodity production. To assume that capitalist enteprise always trumps the cooperative mode is simply wrong, and is a well researched domain (the social economy already encompasses 10-15% or the economy in different western countries and globally employs more workers than multinations, not bad for a weak sector he ?) . It is true that capitalist power can severely impede the cooperative economy,and the coops can therefore exaggerate their adaptation to the capitalist system, this is indeed a well-known issue for cooperatives. This is precisely why we propose open cooperativism, i.e. a new form in which the link to the commons and the common good is constitutionally obligatory. Second, Stefan therefore underestimate the hyperproductivity of commons peer-production. For example, the cost of open hardware has been estimated to be 1/8th of proprietary hardware by several authors such as Joshua Pearce, Marcin Jakubowsky and others. This gives the ethical coalition producing them, and protecting their commons through reciprocity licenses, an extraordinary competitive edge. The tragedy of positions like Stefan Meretz, who don't object to subsuming the commons to the political economy of capital, is that capital understands the hypercompetitive nature of peer production, and invests in it, while the positioning of Meretz discourages resistance and the creation of alternative modalities of production.


Stefan writes:

"It is not possible to out-compete capitalism (or the bad guys), so being better than capitalism on its own terrain to finally get rid of it. It is a contradiction in terms. There is not way via changing distribution provided that a transformation is the goal, but there is a way via the enforcement of a new way of production, of a new social logic of producing our livelihood. This new social logic can not be build up using forms of the old social logic, namely the logic of exclusion of commodity production. It is unavoidable that the old logic exploits the outcome of the new logic, because the results can be freely appropriated. But this an external relation while the contrary logics persist on their own."

MB: The first is an unsupported statement, belied by the fact that the cooperative economy exists, subsists and even thrives within capitalism, so it is simply a factual error. The second error is that Stefan believes the CBRL are merely about redistribution of value and not about changing the mode of production. The truth is the opposite, it is Stefan Meretz which is entirely happy with the commons economy not being able to produce its own social reproduction. Our approach is to transform really existing peer production, which is today not a full mode of production, but only a proto-mode of production precisely because it can't assure its own self-reproduction. This is exactly why the convergence of peer production in the sphere of abundance, must be linked to the sphere of cooperative production, and thus insure its self-reproduction. And like in any past phase transition, the existence of a proto-counter-economy, and the resources that this allocates to the counter-hegemonic forces, are absolutely essential for a political and social change our power. This was the weakness of classic socialism, i.e. it had no alternative mode of production, and could only institute state control after a takeover of power. But Stefan Meretz does not even attempt that, he is willing to just wait for the organic and emergent development of peer production into a fully alternate system. As by magic wand, no counter-economy, no social and political self-organisation is needed, just patience and in the meantime, he accepts the political economy of capital, believing that it will disappear on its own. In the view of Meretz, peer production remains a parasitic modality that is dependent on the self-reproduction through capital. By contrast, through the ethical economy surrounding the commons, it is actually also possible to create non-commodified production and exchange, that is a resource-based economy, based on the stigmergic mutual coordination through the gradual application of open book accounting and open supply changes. There is no such possibility with an attentist attitude that satisfies itself with full servitude to the dominant system.


Stefan writes:

" Bauwens offers: ... “Hence, as this process strengthens, and is accompanied by the growth of social and political power, the circulation of capital is replaced by a full circulation of the commons. The phase transition has effectively occured.” In the end politics should do it. How else can the circulation of capital be replaced by the circulation of commons? But what can this commons circulation be? The state implements commonism by decision? This can hardly be considered."


MB: Yes indeed, Stefan, there will be no qualitative phase transition merely through emergence, but it will require the reconstitution of powerful political and social movements which aim to become a democratic polis. And that democratic polis, can indeed, through democratic decisions, accelerate the transition, and take measures that force private economic forces to include externalities, thereby ending infinite capital accumulation. Dreaming that you can change society, by merely producing open code and design, while remaining subservient to capital, is a dangerous pipe dream.