The Open Revolution, book review: Ownership in the digital age

Today's digital economy should be more open and equitable, says Rufus Pollock, rather than closed and at the mercy of 'digital dictators'.

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The Open Revolution: Rewriting the Rules of the Information Age • By Rufus Pollock • A/E/T Press • 123 pages • ISBN: 978-1983033223 • £9.99

In 1975 a fire in my apartment building took out the telephone connection. Five minutes after calling the phone company, I realized: I'd forgotten to first replace my very wired phone's $3 30-foot cord, bought from Woolworths, with AT&T's original 6-footer. Sure enough, the repairman took the cord into custody. AT&T controlled every aspect of what could be connected to its network; this was an illegal cord.

Geek culture tends to loathe telcos because they blocked innovation for years until the internet overwhelmed them, and even now they still battle against network neutrality. But that's just one aspect of open versus closed: add in the open source/free software movement that began with Richard Stallman in the 1980s, open access in scientific publishing, and access to medicines. What if we could get past the narrow, repetitive conversations around copyright, patents, and other intellectual property rights that polarise rights holders and activists trying to protect citizens' rights and the public domain?

This is what Open Knowledge co-founder Rufus Pollock tries to do in The Open Revolution: Rewriting the Rules of the Information Age. 'Open', he writes leads to both social benefits and economic growth, whereas 'Closed' benefits the few at the expense of the many. Instead of today's limited copyright and patent monopolies, Pollock proposes a system of a tax on advertising, levies such as a small surcharge on everyone's data plans, and 'remuneration rights'. The latter sound very like the mechanical licenses that pay songwriters in the recording business; you pay a standard industry-wide fee, but after the first recording no permission is required.

Open versus Closed

Pollock makes his case by reviewing the many ways the Closed system is broken and then explaining how Open can be expanded to cover software, pharmaceuticals, and other sectors. Pollock also promotes universal service platforms with regulatory oversight that mediate between artists and audience. These revenue streams would roll together into pools out of which artists and inventors can be paid. They should, he writes, be at least as large as the aggregated amounts they're paid now.

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It's not the job of revolutionaries to stymie themselves by imagining the difficulties of turning their visions into reality. Pollock does cite some difficulties, but believes all this is genuinely possible given the will. Politics, money, entrenched interests, and even small-time creators tired of being ripped off -- all will align against him, as will the concentrated power amassed by Closed walled gardens such as Facebook (which John Oliver's writers call "a surveillance system disguised as a high-school reunion"). Many artists and creators are not fans of collecting society distributions; the long tail often earns less than the threshold for payouts.

Still, Pollock's ideas are worth thinking about. The next Isaac Newton can't stand on the shoulders of giants if the giants are locked in a cage.

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