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Jeffrey Elkner

Creative Commons Cooperators License?


I just finished our assignment for week four of the Platform Cooperatives Now! course fellow NOVA Web Development cooperator Natalia Cerna and I are taking together. The course, organized by the Platform Cooperativism Consortium, seems like it was tailor made for the needs of our cooperative as we struggle to launch our business this Summer. This week's lecture and support materials, in particular, offer us concrete things to think about and people to talk to as we look for meaningful work for our developers.

A Community Partnership

NOVA Web Development has been partnering with the community organization, NOVALACIRO, which is dedicated to serving the needs of the Latinx community in Northern Virginia. Right now, the greatest of those needs is for a safe and dependable way to earn a living. Unemployment is skyrocketing under the COVID-19 pandemic, and those folks within our community who are undocumented are ineligible for the relief checks that other struggling folks are getting.

Even before the pandemic, the NOVALACIRO board had made the decision to focus on incubating worker cooperatives in areas that could benefit the most vulnerable workers in our Latinx community. It's first community engagement meeting had been set for March 20th. It had to be cancelled due to COVID-19.

The Platform Cooperatives Now! course materials this week focused on Up & Go, a platform coop in New York City that supports several cleaning cooperatives in the area. The initiative for Up & Go came from the Center for Family Life Coop, Business Development project. Center for Family Life is a neighborhood-based family and social services organization in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

The coincidences were too great not to get excited! NOVALACIRO is a non-profit organization that has recently adopted the same goal as Center for Family Life. I was immediately struck by the idea that we could reach out to Center for Family Life and Up & Go to get help with NOVALACIRO's coop project. NOVA Web Development is looking to create software platforms like the one used by Up & Go. If collaboration is possible, we could perhaps use and contribute to the development of their platform.

I showed A Cooperative Story No. 8 UP & GO, New York, USA to the NOVALACIRO board, and they were inspired by it. One of the board members is a house cleaner, as is the mother of NOVALACIRO's organizer. The idea that we could work together toward more just, dignified working conditions for our immediate members at the same time building community wealth gives us hope in these difficult times.

The plan now is to see if Natalia and I can use the remainder of our class to work on this idea.

The Trouble with Commodified Software

Neoliberal capitalism strives to turn literally everything into a commodity, from our shared ideas to the very rain water that falls from our sky. It worships the market as its one true god, and does not value anything that can not be given a price.

Unfortunately, Up & Go has fallen into the trap of neoliberalism. The software running the platform has been privatized, so instead of being a shared community resource, it is kept private in the vague hope of turning it into a commodity. Ironically, Up & Go is very unlikely to ever make any money from sale of the platform. Their limited resources prevent them from being effectively able to compete with the tech oligarchy, who can spend millions (even billions) of dollars on the platforms they build. The only hope we working folks have is in pooling our limited resources together. What's more, the true value in platforms like Up & Go come from the networked value of our human community, not from the software itself. This network value grows as the software platforms that support it are shared among us.

The ideal situation for our local group in Arlington, Virginia would be to be able to leverage the great work done by Up & Go in our effort to replicate what they have done in our area for the benefit of our community. This would be consistent with both the cooperation among cooperators and concern for the community principles at the heart of cooperativism.

Professor Trebor Schulz raised this very issue with Up & Go during a presentation last March, Up & Go: A gig platform cooperatively owned by domestic workers in New York City. Up & Go's response to his question suggests they may be open to talking about it. This conversation will be crucial for NOVALACIRO, which can either collaborate with Up & Go to help our communities, or be forced to expend valuable and limited resources developing a similar platform of its own.

A New Creative Commons Cooperators License?

I've been a free software activist since I first encountered gcc as a grad student in 1993, and generally share the Free Software Foundation's (FSF) commitment to the four freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The FSF website has this to say about any license that deviates in any way from these four freedoms:

While we can distinguish various nonfree distribution schemes in terms of how far they fall short of being free, we consider them all equally unethical.

While I acknowledge the danger of the slippery slope, I think it may be appropriate to at least consider challenging one aspect of these freedoms in a way that may potentially be more ethical, not less.

Freedom 0 says the software may be run "for any purpose". This includes commercial purposes that generate revenue. I would like to end this post by opening up the following discussion, to which Professor Schulz alluded in our Platform Cooperatives Now! class.

What would be the implications of a Creative Commons Cooperators License, which would be a modified version of the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) with a specific exemption on the "noncomercial" part for worker cooperatives? Should we try to develop and promote such a license? Would Up & Go be interested in such a project?

For sure such a project would not be without its difficulties. How would "workers cooperative" be legally defined in terms of enforcement of the license? This is probably the most challenging obstacle. It is also, however, a possible opportunity to increase the profile of worker cooperatives and to elevate their legal status, both essential goals for our movement. If we could find a way to develop a cooperators license that promoted both sharing of software and the fight back against ever growing inequality through worker cooperatives, that would indeed be more ethical, not less.