A commons-based future

Keynote talk from Open Source // Open Society conference 2015

Posted by Billy Meinke on April 17, 2015   •   10 min read

The following is a transcript of my keynote talk from the #OSOS2015 conference in Wellington, New Zealand. I did tweak the talk a bit while I was up on stage, but here’s the gist of it.

Thanks to those folks who appreciated the talk, and encouraged me to share this transcript. Specifically, the “close your eyes” section of the talk was in demand.

I hope you enjoy it.

*Header image credit: Billy Matheson


Aloha, everyone. My name is Billy Meinke and I’m an educational technologist with College of Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I’d like to acknowledge Creative Commons New Zealand for bringing me to this wonderful place. Being able to visit Auckland, Christchurch, and now beautiful Wellington has been a real treat. It didn’t take long for me to see why so many of you call this place home. It’s a gem. And I can say that with some authority…because I live in Hawaii.

(CC logo)

For several years I worked on the education team at Creative Commons international based in the United States, which was an incredible period of exploration and discovery for me, personally. As stewards of the commons, we walked the bleeding edge of innovation, helping guide individuals and groups and agencies all over the world that wanted to be a part of a thriving and robust commons - by sharing content with the world.

(CC logo + Lessig portrait)


What's needed is a way to say something in the middle — neither "all rights reserved" nor "no rights reserved" but "some rights reserved" — and thus a way to respect copyrights but enable creators to free content as they see fit. In other words, we need a way to restore a set of freedoms that we could just take for granted before."

From music and creative works, to heritage works and cultural history, and science and education and everything that lies between them, I witnessed the power of simple technology to change the world. But the licenses are only tools. And when you look more closely, you see that people are at the heart of the commons.

(We all win)

And these people are connected by the notion that we can and should nurture the commons together, we all win.

Now this idea isn’t unique to content. As I’m sure you’ve heard twice or three times or more over the last few days, leaders in the free software movement emerged in the 80’s. One of the more notable individuals was Richard Stallman.

(Stallman image)


I could have made money this way, and perhaps amused myself writing code. But I knew that at the end of my career, I would look back on years of building walls to divide people, and feel I had spent my life making the world a worse place. -Richard Stallman
( Free as in Freedom : Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software (2002) by Sam Williams)

He’s dedicated his life to keeping software free, and promoting the idea that when we as citizens should have freedoms to do what we wish with software, to make our own lives better and to contribute back to communities, work for the greater good.

(I would love to change the world but they won’t give me the source code.)

As the name of this conference suggests, the idea of free software has been around for some time. It’s not worth getting into the nitty gritty details of whichever terminology is more accurate, or misleading, or fully descriptive or whatever. A key point of the free software movement is that users are guaranteed certain freedoms. They’re granted freedoms to do things with the software that they couldn’t have otherwise. The code is set free, and that’s a magnificent thing.

(gif of putting kindle back on shelf)

This is important in an increasingly digital age where the cost of copying and distributing content carries a marginal cost of zero.

We’re literally talking about fractions of a penny.

You see, digital content is non-rivalrous, meaning that I can take something I have and give it to you, without losing anything myself. You see it all over the place on the internet, memes like this being shared and remixed and shared again. It’s collective creativity on a massive scale, but the law hasn’t adapted to suit the affordances the digital world.

(copyright term extension)

Ever-increasingly restrictive copyright laws have been introduced over the last few decades, extendeding the default length of time it takes for works to enter the public domain automatically. When you create a work in the United States (as in many countries), we’ll be waiting 70 years or more after your death until we can freely reuse your work. Does that sound reasonable in a digital age? In an age where the marginal cost of copying and transmitting digital artifacts is mere fractions of a penny? I think not.

Copyright (and patents) were originally designed to last a period of time long enough to incentivize the creation of new works. But several times during the 20th century, default copyright term was exended after big media firms won cases to further lock away the likes of Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and the Happy Birthday song.

You made it; now you should be able to exploit it. What if we wanted to share it out? What if we wanted to build things with people who have shared interests, but live across the globe? What if we wanted to set our works free, or contribute to something larger than ourselves? Open licenses for content and code are at the ready and have allowed us to put our collective creativity into the commons how and when we wish to. The Creative Commons, the GNU Public License, and others have been critical in allowing this to happen.

(We are making headway)

The good news is, we are making headway together.

(CC state of the commons slide)

While there are real threats to this (such as the Trans Pacific Partnership), we’re actually sitting on the most robust commons we’ve ever had. Countless free and open source software projects provides technical infrastructure that we rely on every day. Content and code and data are being put into the commons at a rate that should make every single one of us smile.

So let’s talk about the potential we have at hand. Let’s talk about a commons-based future.


For the next couple minutes, I’d ask you to close your eyes.

Yes, close them.

Take a long deep breath, and check the backs of your eyelids for holes. You won’t need to look at any slides. Just imagine this.



In a commons-based future, educational opportunity is ubiquotous.

Think: Anyone who wants to learn can learn. The only barrier to education is the willingness to try. And when you try, you have a pool of shared knowledge at your fingertips that we could have only dreamt of in the past. You don’t think in terms of a textbook, because the web is your learning platform, and you own your educational future. And when you want to know more, you’re connected to other citizens who share your thirst for knowledge. You begin to string together digital artifacts along your journey, and you can see how others navigated the seas of open educational resources before you. You create your own pathwayss that others can follow after you move on. You participate in the commons.


You have the world’s cultural heritage available to you. You search the archives of thousands of museums in hundreds of countries, and help curate collections of millions of images and sounds and videos that tell the story of our world before now. You can see streams of artifacts flowing into the commons as new discoveries are unearthed. You can walk the halls of the Louvre or the Smithsonion or any number of places anywhere on earth that you’ve always wished to see. When you find something truly compelling, you take a 3d scan of it and print it at the local library. You place your hands on history, work with it, play with it, understand it. You make new things from the things of ages past. You breathe life into history. You participate in the commons.


You stand on the shoulders of giants and tap into a distributed body of research that spans all domains of science. You have access to the latest studies and reports, and to the underlying data and code that produced them. You can ask questions of the data that no one thought to do, or was able to before it was free. You make visualizations from it that help others find meaning in it. You thumb through sciencific studies being done all over the world in real-time. You can be a part of a community of enthusiasts who push the limits of what it means to be a citizen scientist. Science, for you, is a living breathing thing, and you’re participating in the commons.


Government operates openly, bringing a heightened level of transparency and efficiency. Civic data is a few keystrokes away, and the governmet invites you to make the data more useful and consumable. Legislation is codified and publicly versioned, and you’re notified when a change is proposed or made to the laws you care the most about. Citizens are more informed and involved in the ways their tax dollars are spent, and they support government leaders who work to ensure this transparency continues in perpetuity. You have knowledge about your community and your world in the palm of your hand. You’re participating in the commons.

This commons-based future isn’t a fantasy, as you may have begun to think. Every one of the advantages and capabilities and freedoms I mentioned a minute ago are based on technology we have today. And each of them is happening somewhere in the world, but none of them are happening everywhere in the world. By participating in the commons, we can work towards a future where more people have a life that involves the commons. The commons can grow.

(4 slides about domains)


We are opening up education.

We are opening up culture.

We are opening up science.

We are opening up government.

(final slide)

So, a final thought from the inventor of the World Wide Web, which turned 25 years old last year.

From Tim Berners Lee:


In software, "open" refers to free or open-source software, standards, data, platforms, access and scope. These push control to the edge, where innovation thrives. Open platforms let users choose which software to install. The open-data movement seeks to boost governments' economic efficiency, knowledge and public trust by liberating people's data. Like decentralisation, openness empowers people, contributing to the innovation that produces economic and social gains.