The Open Revolution: the vital struggle of open vs closed, free vs unfree

Originally published at:

Rufus Pollock’s new book The Open Revolution: rewriting the rules of the information age, reimagines ownership in a digital age and its implications from the power of tech monopolies to control how we think and vote , to unaffordable medicines, to growing inequality. Get the book and find out more at - Cory


I’m not a fan of software patents, and I’m a big fan of open software - but the idea of no IP as a thought exercise has me shuddering.

We’re pretty much already in the situation where people confuse the value of the content with the value of the delivery mechanism. (How often are people outraged because the price of an e-book rivals the paper version, despite the fact that the content is the same?)

Eliminating IP means that only the delivery mechanism becomes valuable - and if that’s not a gift to the Internet giants, I don’t know what is.

(If our concern is not really IP but the dominance of the Internet companies, then let’s drop the false moral justification and just do what needs to be done. If we can get enough votes, we elect the government that pass the laws to destroy by fiat whatever companies we deem necessary. If we can’t get the votes, then we’ve failed to persuade the electorate of our case.)

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Welcome to the Open Rebellion Revolution.


The same big internet companies have the means to effectively control the opinion, so I cannot see any way to get enough votes for that project.

I’ve only skimmed the article so far, but wouldn’t eliminating IP and switching to openness mean that these internet giants lose their stranglehold on the means of delivery?

Yes, they are at the top right now, but the first group(s) that could find a means to compete without fear of being sued into oblivion would make the giant’s foundation quite shaky.

But no fear of an open world without IP thanks to this:

However, our present Closed world is one of extraordinary concentrations of power and wealth.

And they will do ANYTHING to maintain that power and wealth. Anything. They will burn everything down before they lose it.


I don’t have time to dissect the foolish conflation in this post of the problems with IP law, the problems with the rise of monopoly corporations, and the problems with the rise of surveillance capitalism and its power to destroy democracy.

But I will observe that facebook, the ultimate quintessence of monopoly surveillance capitalism, is built upon open source technologies making use of users’ freely and openly shared IP. So I really don’t think the author’s prescription is going to work all that well.

Fixing surveillance capitalism will not necessarily fix the problem with giant monopolies taking over the world. Fixing IP law will not necessarily have any impact on the giant monopolies or on surveillance capitalism. They are three different problems that almost certainly need three different solutions. It’s only one problem with one solution in the world of certain ideologically blindered FOSS evangelists.


Ebooks and paper books should have different costs if anything we tell ourselves about economics is true. They have wildly different costs.

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It seems the assumption here is that a central government fund does not constitute an extraordinary concentration of wealth. I guess that’s because the government is supposed to be answerable to the people, because the tyranny of the majority can’t lead to extraordinary concentration of power either?

To “choose optimism” when evidence should suggest the contrary seems to have led to much distress over the course of history.

Every once in a while, governments and companies experiment with open approaches to solving problems. Companies especially fear exposing themselves enough to do it well or often - but when they do, the results are often pretty spectacular.

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Actually, the cost of physical manufacture of a paper book is 10% of the cover price or less. The publisher’s cut of a paper book’s cover price is around 45-50%, the distributor gets 10-15%, and the retailer gets 40%.

So maybe 1/5 of the publisher’s cut goes to physical manufacturing. The rest goes to editing, layout, promotion, royalties for the author, and profit, if any.

Eliminate the distributor, eliminate the physical manufacturing costs, and keep the publisher/retailer cuts the same, and the savings from not having a physical object to make and distribute would only be around 25%.

That’s not the price difference between ebook and paper books because on the one hand, publishers want to ensure that the bookstores that buy paper books from them stay in business, so they try to negotiate deals that ensure that ebooks sell for a guaranteed minimum amount so as to not undercut paper based sales. And on the other hand, the ebook retailing business has much lower overheads than the paper book retailing business, so the typical publisher-retailer division of the sale price for an ebook is rarely 50-50 any more (70-30 is common, but that’s just the ratio that Apple pulled out of their posterior and tried to make the industry standard).


Charlie Stross has some interesting posts on the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry as seen from the perspective of the jobbing author:

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I think you may be misunderstanding “eliminating IP”, the post does refer to “market-driven renumeration rights” so I think that means something along the lines of compulsory licensing, where for example if I invent a new technology I don’t have the right to prevent others from using it in their own designs, but I do have the right to demand that they pay me some fee (or fraction of their profits) when they do so. And this would also mean that creators of something like a novel would still be free to charge consumers a fee for a digital copy, even if the delivery cost were next to nothing.


People have been failing to vote the way I’d prefer them to vote long before the Internet.

I’m fine with the sentiment of “I don’t care enough to do the necessary work.” Indeed, I share the sentiment.

But attempting to discourage those are willing to work simply to make me feel better about my laziness isn’t the right approach. I don’t think that pretending “there’s nothing that can be done because we’re all mind controlled” is either honest or helpful.

There is incumbent protection through IP acquisition, and that’s a bad thing. But they also have capital and recognition. And of the three, IP is the only one that even has the possibility of working against the incumbent.

So, my position is that IP is the difference between having a slim chance of taking on an incumbent and NO chance of taking on an incumbent.

Still, I’d be for immediate elimination of software patents. I don’t think they provide much protection for new competitors and they are heavily used by patent trolls and incumbent protection (although if people have counter-examples, I’d love to hear them. Nothing better than being proved wrong.)

It’s the “all IP should be abolished” that I’m not a fan of. (Full disclosure. My household income depends on my company’s better funded competitors not being able to disassemble my programs and then sell them as their own and Amazon/Google not being able to simply copy my wife’s content and sell it.)

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You’re right. I was mostly responding to the sentiment expressed at the beginning:

I’m pretty suspicious of anything that interferes with the relative simplicity of “offer a service at a price and the customer takes it or leaves it”. As soon as you get much more complicated, I’m confident that the very smart people at Amazon or Google will be able to game the situation to ensure that they take the profit and I’m left with the content creation.

No doubt the customers would be happy for a while (the Internet giants do offer very compelling deals), and then annoyed that I was inconveniencing them by being too stupid to remain solvent in the new business environment :-).

I did not say that nothing can be done or that we are all mind controlled. What I meant is that the conditions of democracy have changed so that your direct approach is not likely to work in the way you expect it.

There is also another argument: to maintain and develop the ecosystems allowing distribution of content over the internet, the large internet companies are investing several tenth of billions $ in R&D each year.

They certainly get their money back with a profit, but leave alone that part of the equation for the sake of the discussion. What I am saying is that maintaining what the general public has grown used to expect to simply work costs tenths of billions. If you want to replace the large internet companies, you will need to find adequate financing for the new system. Maybe the new system will cost a bit less, but even if it costs half of what is presently spent, it still is lots of money.


Let me make it clear - what I objected to was the claim that they controlled our opinion.

I agree that it is unlikely that I could drum up the votes to break apart the Internet companies - I suspect that I could not get people to trade the convenience that they presently enjoy for the somewhat nebulous benefits of not having Internet giants.

But circling back to my original point - direct legislation is the honest way of approaching the issue and thus my preference, even if it’s unlikely that I win with that approach. I’m a huge “unfan” of marginally dishonest approaches to desirable ends - the ends do NOT justify the means.

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Now I understand better. You are probably right that dishonest approaches are to be avoided. I can agree to that.

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