Subject: virtual copyright
From: Tom Lord <lord@regexps.com>
Date: Thu, 30 May 2002 03:24:07 -0700 (PDT)



For that matter, a voluntary but market-enforced perpetual,
non-governmental system of copyright might be useful among free
software software providers at various scales.

Every GNU/Linux vendor in the $XM/year revenue range (for various
values of X) might agree to "sell" variations on United Linux, for
example, but agree among themselves that "shares" (measured in a
virtual currency) of specific distribution configurations are "owned"
(virtually) by specific vendors who among themselves pay out royalties
in proportion to net sales of the configurations represented by those
shares.  A vendor-neutral, group-appointed authority (like a good RNG)
can settle ownership disputes about works which are arguably novel
"re-uses" vs. those which are derivative "modifications".

To make up a concrete example: suppose that Red Hat joins United
Linux, bringing their family of embedded kernels to the table.  With
some hacking, those kernels might be turned into elements of the
United Linux product line.  Now every United Linux vendor can sell
distributions and services around those kernels, but they might all
agree to make virtual _royalty payments_ to everyone who holds a
virtual currency that represents _share's_ of Red Hat's "embedded
kernel pseudo-copyright currency".  Periodically, the participants in
this system of virtual royalties can "settle up", translating net
surpluses and deficits into voluntary cash exchanges.  Since these
"settling up" payments would be strictly voluntary, there is a measure
of safety against royalty balances that would bankrupt or unreasonably
enrich one vendor or another.

This system of voluntary copyright and royalties would give the United
Linux vendors incentives to create new United Linux products (for
other vendors to help sell) and incentives to help sell United Linux
products created by other vendors.

I think a system of voluntary copyright and shared product lines would
work well in combination with a virtualized "spot market" for the
related software development, maintenace, and support activities.

The spot market could even "self fund" new (pseudo-)copyrightable
works, paying itself in copyright shares of the new work, resulting 
eventually in a complex, hopefully merit-based distribution of
royalties among the participating vendors and volunteers.

To the extent that voluntary systems of software copyright and
royalties can support reliable returns for some classes of new
software, the existence of voluntary copyrights can attract _real
investment capital_ for free software/open source development.

The catch concerns large customers.  If large customers don't honor
the system of voluntary copyright, they have no incentive to pay
license fees; they can "buy one distribution and make copies".
Without windfall license fees, or something comperable, shares of
voluntary copyrights are worthless, no matter how scrupulous the
players are about making royalty payments.

One _technological solution_ to the license fee problem has emerged in
popular FSB pratice that can be re-used: the ancillary subsription
service.  You _get_, somehow, a Gnome desktop -- but then there's
something or other about a _carpet_ that you're supposed to subscribe
to.  Subscription fees replace license fees.

Suppose that the products attached to ancillary subscription services
are covered by voluntary pseudo-copyrights.  Then revenues from the
subscriptions form the basis for meaningful royalty payments.  The
operation of the subscription service itself can be turned over to a
free software spot labor market -- so its costs can be traded among
multiple vendors who participate in the voluntary copyright system.
The net effect: every vendor "mans's" the subscription service, every
vedor creates and "copyrights" new products to attach to the
subscription service, vendors sell each others products, OEMs link
consumers to the subscription system, and the coallition periodically
balances out the books of the virtual organizations and exchanges
cash royalties.  Whew.

A _social solution_ to the license fee problem (but with _technical
implications_) is to obtain *voluntary* license fees from large
customers, paid out according to the rules of the voluntary copyright
system.  What might persuade large customers to pay optional license
fees?  For one thing: preferential treatment.  If large customers are
likely to want to ask for lots of development favors, voluntarily
paying pseudo-copyright royalties might be an affordable way to obtain
a more favorable disposition from the vendor's development community.
The technical implication is that vendors should try to engineer
products that afford a lot of application-specific customization and
extension.

-t