Crowdsourcing Part 3: Crowdsourcing and IP

(This is part 3 of a series on my thoughts on crowdsourcing, inspired by Jeff Howe’s book Crowdsourcing. Part I was a review of the book, Part II looked at the economics of crowdsourcing. Part III will look at intellectual property and crowdsourcing)

It’s no secret that the intellectual property framework in this country is a mess. Software companies have to amass arsenals of patents that they can leverage against other companies trying to sue them over unclear patent disputes. The authors guild threatens to take actions against Amazon because of a text to speech feature in it’s latest Kindle ebook reader. The AP threatens a iconic pop-artist with a copyright suit for the creation of the iconic Obama image. If it’s this bad now, what happens when we start the throw crowdsourcing into the mix?

Surprisingly, Howe doesn’t really address this issue in his book. The question of IP is glossed over, recieving only a cursory mention when Howe points out that in certain crowdsourcing models, like that of Threadless, users create the content, but the companies keep the IP.

But if crowdsourcing really catches on, it will be one of two forces that our current IP model simply can’t handle. (The first, I covered briefly in an earlier post, referencing a great article on Ars Technica regarding the subject.) There’s no single, short, pithy explanation as to why I think this, so I’ll explain as best as I can with an example.

We’ll start with Threadless. At Threadless artists submit T-shirt designs. The community then votes for the design they like best and then Threadless turns it into a T-shirt, paying the artists a small prize and keeping the IP to themselves. Now this is a pretty slick little business model and there’s really no reason why it couldn’t be used for something besides T-shirts, like posters, or maybe custom kitchenware. But what happens when you get four or five business running like this, with artists submitting designs to all of them, with the businesses getting ownership of the IP. Soon enough you’ll get overlap, someone will submit a design to two places. Some will use a T-shirt as an inspiration for something they submit as a poster. And soon enough, somebody is going to go after somebody else for copyright infringement.

Then the courts are going to have a very interesting discussion about who’s fault. Is it the artist who created the infringing work? Does the company selling the product have to pay damages? Either way, it’s a loss for crowdsourcing. And since many companies will likely manufacture and start to sell product before the infringement occurs, they’ll stand to loose money no matter what. The only way to avoid it will be for companies to filter out infringing  designs before the crowd gets a chance to vote, and we all know how well that will scale.

The problem is something like the prisoners dilemma. The current thinking on IP is that you should grab as much IP as you possibly can, even if you have no plans to immediate make use of it. However, if everyone follows this strategy, a great deal of uncapitalized IP remains locked up in companies who let it sit idly. No one else can use that cool T-shirt design on a poster, or a set of plates, or on a table. Defining the terms for collaboration too, becomes incredibly difficult, because no one wants to work together if they aren’t sure they will walk away with the IP. Instead everyone re-invents the wheel to ensure that they own the rights to whatever tool they are developing. The best strategy for the individual is sub-optimal for the group.

There’s no quick and easy solution for this problem, and certainly nothing that a 23 year old can come up with on a Sunday afternoon. And I think that’s in part because there is not one solution. The Threadless example is a quick peek at the kind of problems our IP infrastructure will have to deal with, but it’s only one of many. Ultimately this is a multi-faceted solution with a multi-faceted problem. Some of it will center on new limited licences, like those of Creative Commons, where creators only reserve or grant specific rights regarding the use of their work. Some of it will center on new funding schemes, like in open source software where companies rely on support and implementation to fund more development. And some I’m sure will center on brand new ideas that I haven’t even begun to think of. The point though, is that it will start with a fundamental shift in how we think of IP, from beyond the hoarding mentality to something with just a little more sharing involved.

This concludes my series on crowdsourcing, but not my writing on it. I’ve pointed my father, a doctor, towards the book  and the phenomena. Already we’ve had some preliminary discussions about how it might apply to medicine. I hope to steal some of his thoughts for a later post, but I’ll probably take a break and return to some other subjects before then.


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