The Silent Spring of the Internet: Part II: Understanding “unpaid”

Yesterday I spent some time thinking about what Rachel Carson experienced in the period leading up to her writing The Sea Around Us, and following that up a decade or so later with Silent Spring. How we can learn from those experiences as we hurtle towards wholesale destruction of the internet and all it stands for, particularly with phenomena like the Digital Economy Act, the DMCA, Hadopi and the most appalling of them all, ACTA. I shared some of those thoughts with you here.

Today I want to spend a little more time on the same subject, but from a different perspective. Let me explain why.

Ever since I got visibly involved in the Digital Economy Bill debate, I have been dismayed by the number of people who spend time accusing me of complete naivete when it comes to the download and fileshare debate. The accusations usually begin with an assumption (on the part of the accusers) that I (and people like me) do not want to see “creators” properly rewarded for their work; this is then extrapolated into further accusations that classify unpaid digital downloading as theft, somehow taking the civil offence of copyright infringement and converting it into a criminal offence, despite the “owner” of the asset continuing to have complete and unfettered access to the asset, despite the extreme nonrival nature of the asset.

When I’ve tried to debate with the accusers, their usual stance has been “don’t talk to me about the need to change intellectual property law, don’t talk to me about how badly broken copyright law is, don’t talk to me about downloaders being the primary buyers, don’t talk to me about fair use and free speech and all that jazz. What you’re talking about is theft, pure and simple. Don’t come back until you’ve got sensible proposals for how creative people get paid for their work.”

So that’s where I want to begin.

Making sure creative people get proper payment for their work.

You see, where I come from, software is a creative business. Software is a creative industry… it must be: after all, the fancy figures for illegal downloads include the “lost revenue” for pirated software. [I am now trying desperately not to give in to the temptation to make up sentences that have words like “hoist” and “with” and “own” and “petard”. After all, this is a smelly enough business as it is].

Where was I? Oh yes. Creative people getting paid for their work.


Let’s start with Linux. 60% of all web servers run Linux.  “It would take $10.8 billion dollars to build the Fedora 9 distribution in today’s dollars“. Just one distribution.

Or let’s look at the Apache HTTP Server, which went past the 100 million web sites landmark a year or two ago.

Or let’s look at the volunteers who keep the Internet Storm Center manned and productive.

Or let’s go back in time and look at the volunteers who wrote RFC 675, without which there would be no internet.

Or let’s look at the people who work for and with industry bodies like ICANN and W3C and IETF and, more recently, the Web Science Trust.

All possible because of volunteers. Yes the volunteers may get paid by organisations that can perceive the value generated by such voluntary activity; but this form of payment is closer to patronage than anything else.


I could go on and on, but I won’t. I hope I’ve made the point already. The point is that for the internet to exist, many things have to be in place. There have to be people willing to invest in stuff; people willing to connect the stuff up; people willing to run the many-headed beast that emerges as a result of connecting the stuff up; people willing to protect the beast as it mutates organically, naturally; people willing to keep trying to find faster, cheaper, better ways of doing things.

It all begins with a state of mind. A willingness to share. A focus on being open, a focus on enabling people at the edge to do things they would otherwise not be able to do.

Without that state of mind there are no volunteers, there is no set of standards and protocols, there is no process, cumbersome or otherwise, to let the internet evolve: there is no internet.

Without that internet there is no goldmine for “rightsholders” to strip of all value. Without that internet artists will get paid even less than they do currently, however unlikely that sounds.

Incidentally, here’s a very instructive method of visualising what musicians get paid: [My thanks to @gapingvoid and to @psfk for sharing it with me].

[Also incidentally, Hugh is a good friend, I love the way he thinks, and I really like his recent passion “Remember Who You Are”. He’s got some really great posts together under that banner. Which is why it was a privilege for me to be able to contribute this post over at Gapingvoid.]

Which brings me to the end of this particular post.

We need to remember who we are. Stewards of the internet. The internet, a concept, a state of mind, a set of values, a network of networks of people, things and infrastructure. Where people live and work and learn and read and create. Oh yes, and where people occasionally listen to music or watch videos.

I’m going to continue to think about the internet, particularly in the context of writings like Jonathan Zittrain’s Future of the Internet; Eben Moglen’s recent speech on Freedom In The Cloud and David Gelernter’s Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously

The internet was built for sharing. The internet relies on people who share their time freely and passionately.

There is a catch, however. These people expect something in return for the investment they made, the investment they make, the investment they are prepared to continue to make. And that something is this: a free, unfettered internet.

So when the talk in cafes and dinner tables turns to creative people and the need to make sure creative people get paid properly, do make sure you include all creative people and all modes of payment.