On Framing

So there have been a couple points in responses of late that have got me thinking again about the power of framing an argument to use certain terms that benefit one side. An example of this is the two sides of the abortion debate – pro-life and pro-choice. If either was to take the implied opposite of the other side they would instantly lose the debate – imagine rallying behind ‘pro-death’ or ‘anti-choice’. Digging in to postmodern thought in college definitely got me too deep in to all sorts of meta debates. But as I’ve given up much of the meta thinking – realizing that living in the present moment leads to a richer and happier existence than constantly dissecting multiple levels of the world around – I still have retained a huge respect for the powers of words and ideas.

Often the world appears to me as a battlefield of memes. Castoriadis’s ideas of the Imaginary really got me thinking about how much society is shaped by ideas and words, and that one can potentially change society by changing how the people think and dream about themselves and their world.

Though I am utterly clueless as to how we might go about changing broader society with just a few well placed ideas, I am confident that there are a few things we can do to help frame the debate over sharing ideas, code, and data. In the world of open information, the Free Software Foundation is great at recognizing and recommending to avoid certain phrases, out of the recognition that they frame the debates in such a way that puts the other side at an extreme advantage.

The two terms that have come up recently in this blog are ‘commercial’ and ‘intellectual property’. All my thoughts on these are based on others, but I feel it’s important to remind myself and others about the framings of the debates.

‘Commercial’ – many people often make a comparison between ‘commercial’ and ‘open source’ software. This is a framing that companies whose livelihood is based on proprietary software seek to propagate, as it makes open source software seem to be something that can’t be used in a commercial environment, that doesn’t have sound business models. Free and Open Source Software has never included any clauses that prevent people from making money off of it, indeed one can charge whatever license fees one wants. The difference is that the source code of the software must always be included.

I am less strict about this framing than others, perhaps because I work for a non-profit instead of a commercial company making big money off of open source software. But I still feel it’s incredibly important that we can frame open source software as commercial software, and to recognize proprietary software as just one way to make money producing software. There are now many commercial companies that are quite profitable making open source software, and this is great for the open source community. I believe open source can go much farther, but a key is that it’s thought of as a viable commercial alternative, not some kind of opposite.
‘Intellectual Property’ – SteveC brings this up in the comments – pointing out that one can’t steal data, one can only infringe copyright. Alan responds that it can be stolen, as lawyers call copyright ‘intellectual property’. I’m going to have to side with Steve on this one, though I know ‘intellectual property’ is the popular term. Unfortunately it’s a poor reflection of the reality of digital information, and it’s an attempt on the parts of lawyers and the corporations who pay their bills to put a square peg in a round hole. To quote Barlow:

Intellectual property law cannot be patched, retrofitted, or expanded to
contain the gasses of digitized expression any more than real estate law
might be revised to cover the allocation of broadcasting spectrum.

(his whole ‘Economy of Ideas‘ is really quite excellent on the subject.)

It’s a travesty that the powers that be have successfully framed information such as data, software, music and the like as ‘property’ instead of ‘ideas’ – the latter which we accept should be spread, remixed, and recombined. A couple years ago I thought up an alternate definition for IP – Intellectual Production. Thus code and data still is something you create, and is of value, but doesn’t try to constrain it in ‘property’, it recognizes that the ideas, information, and information products that you produce are not really yours, they are the world’s. A couple weeks ago I ran in to another take from the FSF – ‘Intellectual Wealth’, they are pushing to create a World Intellectual Wealth Organization, instead of WIPO. They also have one of the best takes on the pitfalls of using the term ‘intellectual property’, which they call a ‘seductive mirage‘.

In conclusion, I think it’s of utmost importance that we frame the open geodata debate in the right way, that we learn from the lessons of the free and open source software movement. Open geodata need not be non-commercial, and it is not creating property. It is creating information that will make the world a more open, collaborative, and better place.