In the beginning, there was Stallman. Richard Stallman, Biblical in appearance with long beard, could be mistaken for a long-ago prophet. Self-righteous, obstreperous and outspoken Stallman and his rebellion against the centralized world of computer software, is the jumping-off point for Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, by David Bollier, one of the co-founders of Public Knowledge.
The “Viral Spiral” is Bollier's characterization of how the Internet has evolved, as succeeding innovators and users take someone else's creation and improve and remake it. As Bollier puts it, “Viral networking fees and upward spiral of innovation.” His description of the process is succinct – it is rarely direct and mechanical, but more often is “messy, irregular, indeterminate, serendipitous.”
Bollier's book is an entertaining and insightful history of how we got here from there in that messy, irregular way. Starting with Stallman, Bollier proceeds to weave stories about the heroes of the copyright movement, from academics like Larry Lessig and James Boyle to activists like Cory Doctorow and, of course, Stallman. The tools are important also, and Bollier devotes significant attention to an often-overlooked type of copyright – the Creative Commons license. Unlike normal copyright, which outlaws most uses of material, the Creative Commons license offers creators a menu of options to offer to would-be users. His story of Doctorow is instructive to those who think “giving it away” will lead to economic destruction.
In January, 2003, Doctorow released his book, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” online at the same time as his publisher, Tor, made it available in print. Three years later, Doctorow's book was downloaded several hundred thousand times, and the traditional book format sold well also. Most people viewed the downloaded book as an enticement to buy the printed version, which they did, in the process giving Doctorow a wider audience than he might have otherwise had.
At the heart of the Viral Spiral is the Internet, which allowed for all the wonderful viral spiralling all the while creating a new vision of openness that affected business models for all sorts of industries, ranging from software to publishing to music. Bollier's conclusion is that openness helps companies do better, and those companies which insist on maintaining the Command And Control model are in for a rough ride. That's why, Bollier writes, the telecom industry is so resistant to having a free, open and non-discriminatory Internet: “They would like to leverage their roles as oligopolistic gatekeepers to the Internet.” It's why Hollywood and related industries fight so hard for their “broadcast flag” (which Public Knowledge and friends defeated in court) and other limitations on use. Bollier explored the urge to control to great advantage in his previous book, Brand Name Bullies.
The technology, however, is only one element of the story. The other, without which the Spiral wouldn't become viral, is the new breed of “commoner,” the inhabitants of the “information commons.” The Internet made media a two-way street, as consumers became creators, not only of videos or text or music, but also of social structures. They, we really, are intent on creating a “parallel social order” built on the idea of sharing – legally, mind you – not stealing. In a decentralized economy, that model makes a lot more sense.
Bollier's book provides a valuable first chapter in a movement that's really only getting started and is gaining momentum every day. The fun part is that none of us know where it will end up, but we do know the ride will fabulous.