January 5, 2007  ·  Lessig


So I’m looking for some examples of sites or companies that fit this particular way of carving up the world. This matrix builds upon stuff I’ve been talking about. But to be clear, let me begin by defining the categories:

RO v. RW environments

This is a distinction between the primary use intended for creative work that the site makes available. It answers the question: “What can you do with the content on this site?”

RO means the primary use intended is “read only” — the content is offered for the purpose of consumption; there’s no invitation to add content back, or to modify the content offered.

RW means the primary use intended is “read/write” — the content is offered in a way that invites others to add or modify the content that is offered. RW sites can be more or less RW: some invite contributions to the site without permitting modification of content offered.

Commercial v. Sharing environments

This is distinction between the objectives of the site. It is a fuzzy distinction, but the core difference is this:

Commercial sites aim primarily to make money. They are usually run by commercial enterprises, and they measure their success in financial terms.

Sharing sites are not aimed primarily at making money. It’s not that creators and users of these sites are communists. It’s just that creators and users of these sites do things other than (try to) make money at least part of the day. Think of the Wall Street mogul who teaches Sunday School (and there are these).

Maybe the best way to feel the distinction between a sharing and commercial site is to imagine the role of money in each: There’s nothing weird about the owner of a commercial site offering her employees more money in exchange for more work. There would be something very weird in our Wall Street mogul trying to opt out of Sunday School one week by offering each of the kids $50. Money is normal in one context; it is out of place in the other.

It’s fairly easy to build a list of examples of each of these four categories. I’ve done that here.

But what I’m particularly interested in is the combination of these two distinctions — the matrix above. I’d be grateful for more examples to fit within each of these four boxes. I’ve built a stub for that list here.

Now obviously, this is social space, not logical space, so the matrix does not describe everything. And indeed, the most interesting category I’m keen to explore are hybrids between commercial and sharing sites — plainly commercial organizations that try to exploit (in the best sense of that term) a sharing economy. The key to success with the hybrid is to exploit without poisoning the sharing community. Linux is the most familiar example of this: Sharing economy motives push many, perhaps most, to contribute; but plainly commercial entities (RedHat, IBM) are trying to exploit that sharing economy.

I’ve got a stub to collect examples of hybrids here, with a bit more explanation about what they are.

Importantly: My aim here is descriptive, not normative. It is to see a wide range of examples to begin puzzling through what makes the most successful within each work. For these purposes, the only evil is force or fraud, and none of the four kinds I’ve mapped need rely upon either. So please direct the flame wars about good and bad elsewhere.

  • http://tom.acrewoods.net Tom

    The matrix approach is definitely worthwhile, but I wonder if you’re pushing out discrete categories where you should really be looking to analyse and re-synthesising each dimension?

    YouTube is obviously not “read only”, but nor is it as “read write” as Wikipedia or other copyleft web sites. Record labels who just distribute their CDs under BY-NC-SA would be less RW than YouTube in one sense (they don’t facilitate the write part), but more in another (they don’t restrict the write part down the line for non-commercial uses). RedHat et al aren’t exploiting the sharing economy, they’re participating – completely integrated – in a community and a process that has both commercial and sharing aspects, with copyleft facilitating both commercial and sharing aims, amongst many others (productive, hobbyist, social-between-participants, etc.)

    It would be better, in my opinion, to work up a range of dimensions to the problem you’re interested in, do a little conceptual analysis on each to clarify their meaning, and then an extensive conceptual synthesis to see how they play with each other. How can communities and companies satisfy their commercial needs (costs) and desires (profits) without harming theirs or others’ ability to share, contribute, meet, etc.?

  • Serge

    For me it’s a little much to ask that people who want to help you sign up, check their mail, etc. just to edit a single page.

    My contribution was going to be that there are lots of technical documentation sites for Free Software which encourage sharing, but which are read-only. Examples of this would be all the GNU documentation (manuals, etc. at http://www.gnu.org/manual/manual.html) and the Python documentation at http://www.pydoc.org

    This documentation is intended to be shared (and is often made available in other format and forms) but not intended to be modified by anyone (though some projects make wiki manuals).

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    Where would folk music and folk tales go? Art that is embellished and evolves in the care of all who perform it? Art that people are both free to perform and paid to perform?

    Why create a schism between commerce and free culture?

    It is not commerce that removes the freedom from culture, but copyright.

    A better division is between non-free culture and free culture. Commerce is a natural right of all people.

    However, no doubt incumbent publishers would like people to believe that they should continue to provide the only means for an artist to receive compensation for their labour.

    Why would you seek to exclude commerce from ‘sharing’?

  • Surfer Dude

    Lessig, I’m beginning to view you as a generally clueless fellow who has gained a following due to reasons other than merit. This matrix RO/RW thing is by far the most inane crap youve produced to date. The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft a-gley.

    Please go back to covering trendy liberal subjects like drafting constitutions for south american banana republics.

  • JSTKatz

    I have a couple boundary cases, these are fairly rough, but I think the ideas are distinctly different, and I’d imagine there are better examples that incorporate them.

    First, you could consider sites like RentaCoder a type of
    commercial WO environment, in that there is NO public or even beyond one-party consumption. National Novel Writing month is an interesting project that could probably be best considered non-commercial WO (some are displayed, but the huge majority are not). Finally, as an off-color commercial RW example, that I think is in many ways fundamentally different from YouTube or others; think of live one-way video-chat pornography sites, this is debatable, on one level its looks to be very similar to RentaCoder, though in a very different market, but I think its fundamentally different in that :
    1) There are multiple consumers
    2) There can be multiple consumers who also drive the production
    3) Because of these last two, we can imagine interaction between the consumers, traditional consumers in some sense producing content for other consumers

    So these outliers might be useful to consider because they are rather different from the above the matrix examples. These all have very limited target markets of consumers, and except in the case of nanowrimo(maybe sometimes here also), the consumers play a direct role in the production. Its also possible to imagine some variation on these, nanowrimo is limited in distribution due to the large volume of creative work that comes out, and the cost involved in finding works that are appealing, maybe with a good tagging system that doesn’t have to be the case, its plausible that you could see a consumer-partnership putting out bids for content on RentaCoder, which obviously can have cost benefits, this is limited now partially by lacking infrastructure, its hard to find other people who might be interested in paying for a piece of code that you would like also (for a few reasons), but probably primarily this is limited by (outdated?) business practices, and I’m sure anything I could think of on the pornography side has been done in some capacity, so I’ll leave that one alone.

  • http://tim.samoff.com timsamoff


    I don’t know if it completely fits the bill, but you should check out my church’s website:


    (To view in its entirety, it would benefit you to create an account.)

    The main content of the site would fall into the RO category, with all of the content being written as a comment-less blog (created with a simple-to-use/edit web-based CMS of sorts). There is an RO blogroll containing feeds from all registered users’ blogs, but a RW Discussion board. The sermon audio is downloadable, playable via a Flash player, or subscribable via iTunes. There is a Flickr feed page of all registered users’ Flickr photos as well as a Google Maps page that plots registered users’ locations based on their settings. The calendar page is editable only by the admins, but outputs an iCal file. Every registered user can add to a Bio page and answer user-defined questions that appear randomly every time you answer a question (categorizing it as RW).

  • http://www.klir.com Bill Bliss

    (I also posted an entry on the “Hybrid” wiki page.)

    Klir.com has a service to provide IT Analytics (data center/IT monitoring) as a service. You log into Klir.com to see your data center/IT statistics and you can create custom dashboards, alerts, and reports. The information you are looking at is read-only (not because you don’t “own” it but because of the type of information it is), but since others in the Klir community are likely to have some of the same devices and applications as you have in yours, you can take advantage of dashboards and reports that others have created; it (of course) just wires up to your data instead of theirs.

    At any rate clearly this is a cross between RO and RW. And even iTunes lets you annotate with comments and create iMixes so that’s not truly RO either.

    I think the RO/RW distinction is simultaneously too subtle and too broad. I think what you are trying to get at is something like this. I think there’s a concept of the “core content” (what I think you were getting at with iTunes, for example, and would exclude things like annotations/comments on albums) and is that content audience generated versus generated by the people who run the site.

    In that case for example, core content in the Klir community is obviously generated by the audience.

    I’m not sure if audience-generated content versus site-generated content is what you were trying to get at, but personally I think it comes closer.

  • http://www.kcoyle.net Karen Coyle

    I unfortunately have to put libraries in the RO column. I think that’s one of their current weaknesses, but it is also a strength in terms of their archival role.

  • Tim Hurley


    I think this site fits the hybrid bill. It is a site that markets user-designed t-shirts. The select which designs to produce via online voting.

  • http://shadydentist.com Ryan

    I�m not sure what your ultimate purpose is, but I�d be awfully tempted to complicate things with additional dimensions. Reading divided �viewing/listening/reading� and �saving� and writing into �writing their own content� and �writing on any content�.

    wikipedia: save any content and write on any content.
    flickr: save any content and write your own content.
    youtube/myspace: view (no copying) any content and write your own content.
    itunes: listen (no copying) to their content

  • Surfer Dude

    bathroom stall: RW/Sharing
    burger king menu: RO/Commercial

  • http://penguintv.sourceforge.net Owen Williams

    I agree with Ryan. There should be another column for “Savable.” You may be able to Read from both itunes and youtube, but youtube doesn’t let you save content to your hard drive. This is an important distinction because it means that it’s a lot harder to work with footage found on youtube, even if an author grants you the right to edit it.

  • http://house179.blogspot.com michael houghton

    RW – non-comm:

    -Your site (I’m commenting & you aren’t a commercial site)
    -Forums (i.e.tech support forums)

  • http://www.dslprime.com Dave Burstein


    DSL Reports is an extraordinary site that fits your model in perhaps an interesting way.

    First, it began, as I understand, as essentially a hobby and service endeavour. It became incredibly popular, and evolved into a business that I believe is thriving. Justin has discussed with me his page counts and other data that suggest commercial success, but I’ll let you guys follow up.

    Thinking about why it could successfully make it commercially while dependent on the “free” services of others, I decided a key factor was they retained their “sharing” spirit in everything they did. Their style and editorial policy have been very strong in support of the (non-commercial) goals of their users, which makes people comfortable contributing even if someone is presumably profiting as well.

    Second, the content was initially almost entirely read/write, and most user-contributed. They’ve become a more “hybrid” space as their news reporting became better and better, especially since Karl joined in. So the bulk of the site is still contributed, but the home page is (mostly) professionally produced news. The news sections draw many comments; I’d guess the ratio of comments to reporting remains much higher than most. So the home page, except for the times forums are featured, is R/O, while the rest of the time it’s aggressively r/w. You might draw some inferences from his relative pageviews if they choose to share.
    An interesting sidelight is that one of the reason things work is Justin has done an extraordinary job of programming the site for interaction, building a viable (and very large) “social network” before the term became fashionable. Few bells and whistles, but very smooth function.

  • http://rantingattheboss.blogspot.com/ Jim Downey

    Prof. Lessig:

    I am not sure I have targeted exactly what you are seeking, but two sites come to mind right away:

    Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page), which has been a read-only non-commercial presence on the Internet for many years and provides a depository for e-texts (in ASCII, HTML, PDF and some limited e-book formats) of literary works that are in the public domain. It now uses a wiki format and may be what you describe as a hybrid in its current form.

    Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (http://www.law.cornell.edu/) is a non-commercial read only site that provides some significant legal reference materials, including SCOTUS decisions, major case citations and details, foundational documents (i.e. Constitution) in hypertext and PDF formats. While this site is not open to interactive participation, there are ways to contact the LLI staffers to add details, contribute documents and seek out corrections of information and data on the site.

    Both sites do have a solicitation for donations. Gutenberg uses PayPal for donations while LLI uses an SSL form with a non-secure initial information/registration/donor page.

  • http://www.praxagora.com/andyo/ Andy Oram

    Computer book publishers are trying to tap the enormous outpouring of
    information from computer users, which you already find on mailing
    lists that exist for every imaginable piece of hardware and software,
    as well as web sites and wikis put up by people without official
    connections to the providers of the hardware and software.

    I see the RW/commercial corner as the interesting one, and here there
    are lots of activities by computer companies as well as computer book
    publishers such as the one I work for, O’Reilly Media. (I speak only
    for myself, though.)

    If you go to the official MySQL documentation at the corporate MySQL
    AB site, you will see improvements and suggestions posted by
    readers. Sometimes you can go back and find those suggestions
    incorporated into the official documentation.

    A tentative step in that direction is provided by conventional online
    journals such as the O’Reilly Network, where readers can post comments
    just as they do on the blog I’m posting to. The original article
    remains RO, so this is not really a RW medium. O’Reilly has started a
    true wiki (http://wikicontent.com/)
    which could become a true leap into RW/commercial.

    There seems to be no money in http://wikicontent.com/, because the
    content is under some CC license and the terms indicate that any sale
    profits for hard-copies will be plowed back into the site. We hope for
    spill-over effects that benefit us.

    I’ve written a couple articles on the reaching out of publishers to open,
    shared documentation:

    Rethinking Community Documentation (July 6, 2006)

    Splitting Books Open: Trends in Traditional and Online Technical Documentation
    (September 23, 2004)

  • Janet Hawtin

    michael houghton:
    what would you consider commercial activity?
    is securing support of 300k commercial?
    is promotion of world of warcraft and the secondlife law course not commercial?
    or is commercial not about money, but about business model?
    not for profit v proft?
    is selling books commercial?
    is generating income through speaking commercial?
    is promotion of your practise part of a commercial activity?

    I think the idea that commerce means not sharing is pretty much the kind of thing that is spun AT groups which use open licences.

    I think it would be very challenging to write a blog or any kind of public shared communication space without generating impact on the commercial value of the topic and on the forum itself.

    Free culture is about the value of critical mass of participation, whether that value is social, received, contributed, learned, a component of a commercial transaction, or developed as a paid project is not related to it being free for people to engage in.

    Microsoft are promoting the idea that open licences are about non commercial practice, despite engaging in 500(?) millions of dollars of wonky contradictory bolloxy agreements with Novell. Not bad for a hobby.

    As I understand it the following folk gain commercial value from their participation/sharing in the open licensed sector.
    Doctorow, Lessig, Wales, Moglen, Stallman, Drahos, Russell, any paid FOSS coder, any author who publishes books online and offline, teachers, any profession which has communities of practise where people collaborate and compare ideas for best practise.

    A coder can code for pay. The work can be licensed freely.
    There is no connection between the sharing and the paying.

    A designer can be paid to produce a design,
    That design can be licensed freely.

    A teacher can teach a student. Teachers are paid.
    The student does not sign an NDA.Not this week anyway.

    A lawyer is paid to participate in a case of law.
    The case underpins future decisions and becomes part of a collective body of knowledge. Part of the information society uses.
    I dont think those cases are licenced creative commons but the
    decisions manage to be referred to in future cases.
    It would be a sad day indeed if in the interests of creative licensing
    only some people could afford to subscribe to good decision making.

    Sharing is the default state. Business goes on regardless.
    Restriction is the anomoly; the monopoly which allows only commerce and perhaps not even that, just bare earth instead of healthy competition. Restriction is a barrier to participation.

    Feeling sad and frustrated about the directions and clarity of the messages from the creative commons group.
    Termination of transfer tools are not commons.
    Developing systems for metadata so that materials can be searchable that only work specifically with creative commons licences is also a bit singluar.

    The following is from a paper written for a pro-patent group which indicates that even for proponents of conceptual restriction the problems are evident.


    For many firms, rapid technological change, combined with difficulties in patent doctrine and practice, is causing distress. They echo the complaint heard in 1882:

    [A]n indiscriminate creation of exclusive privileges tends rather to obstruct than to stimulate invention. It creates a class of speculative schemers who make it their business to watch the advancing wave of improvement, and gather its foam in the form of patented monopolies, which enable them to lay a heavy tax upon the industry of the country, without contributing anything to the real advancement of the arts. It embarrasses the honest pursuit of business with fears and apprehensions of concealed liens and unknown liabilities to lawsuits and vexatious accountings for profits made in good faith. Atlantic Works v. Brady, 107 U.S. 192, 200 (1882) (Bradley, J.).

    In this view, there has arisen to infest this land a class of patent holders called “trolls.”

    On a panel a couple of years ago, a participant from an invention shop commented that his business was to figure out where the technology was going and then get there ahead of it and stake out a claim to the ground. My silent reaction was,

    “No – this is precisely what should be avoided. The purpose of the patent is to encourage an inventor to solve a problem and then let him share in the benefits that the solution brings to society. Fencing off the intellectual commons of general advances in knowledge is most emphatically not the purpose.”

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    Janet, the following is CC’s mission for ’007 should it choose to accept it:

    1) Popularise the use of copyright by self-publishers (not just commercial publishers) – done

    2) Associate sharing with non-commercial use of copyright, and non-sharing with commercial use – doing

    3) Segregate art into three classes: functional (software), entertainment (movies/music), speech (blogs).

    4) Survey the Internet for proliferation of each class and individual works within it.

    5) Compute an effective licensing rate for each class, and inform each copyright owner as to what revenue they’d obtain if ISPs were taxed.

    6) Given that sharing has by now been decommercialised, the only way for self-publishers to obtain revenue is to demand taxation – which they do when they see the dollar signs.

    7) Creative Commons coincidentally happens to be in the right place at the right time with the right information to disburse this tax among all self-publishers.

    Why else is a VC now head of CC eh? ;-)

  • Janet Hawtin

    ACK This would be very sad.
    There is no promotion of commons in this direction.
    It would just be a claiming of control of the right to earn income from the commercial value of sharing.

    Surely fundraising for the purposes of creative commons and organisations called creative commons should not be made into engines for restriction.

    This would mean that people would eventually be sued by the creative commons for sharing? Or CC used as a tool to do so?

    Surely that is not what people are contributing for?
    Is that what we are all here for? Another RIAA DMCA facilitator?

    I sincerely hope that Crosbie is incorrect.
    If Crosbie is not correct then what is the reason for focusing creative commons efforts on:
    - termination of transfer – loss of future use.
    - segregation of sharing from earning – MS perspective on the commercial value of sharing.

    I could not find a policy which explained the mission
    vision and expected achievements of the creative commons group on the wiki. This is on the policy page:

    “Notice: We do not license works for money or help collect royalties.”

    If brokering copyright restriction is not the goal of the Creative Commons group then where is all the support for shared information use, models of sharing and earning which do not rely on restriction of the opportunities of others, building a wider understanding of how communities and individuals weave together to make things which have a public value and function?

    If there is a project to find similar creative works.
    Would the Creative Commons tool which facilitated that have a button for collaborate, or a button for litigate/charge?

    How many of the donors would be looking for the first?
    At least one donor Microsoft would be interested in the second?

    If Crosbie is correct the group should be renamed Creative Licensing. A commons is not a franchise.

  • Janet Hawtin

    restricted publishing is the alt to shared information
    ro and rw are broadcast and distributed creation.
    commerce is not the child of any one box.

  • Janet Hawtin

    0 None | 1 Restricted | 2 Conditional 4 Free
    Access I no access | restricted access | conditional access | free access
    Use | no use | restricted use | conditional use | free use
    Modification | no modification | restricted modification | conditional modification | free modification
    Distribution | no distribution | restricted distribution | conditional distribution | free distribution
    Inherited | no inherited state | inherited restriction | inherited condition | inherited freedom

    This is the raw data state for a rights profile matrix
    The idea is that the states could be output as labels or icons or whatever you want. That they could be a part of the metadata.
    It is not a system of licences.
    I expect that people will always be interested in custom licences so this was more of a babelfish for generating a profile from the licences so that you can choose material from a users perspective re what functions it can perform for you.
    It is not fine grained and there would need to be additional information about the specific restriction, conditions that apply.
    From a free culture perspective this could be used to find and use open licensed materials.
    From a restricted media perspective could be integrated as a tool for DRM.
    It is a two sided sword. Some kind of profile map will be likely.
    It will need to be license agnostic and clearly inclusive of free options.
    It will need to be freely available for use and not subject to terms / withdrawal by one entity.
    IMHO setting up a single organisation as the gateway through which all information is accredited is a single point of conceptual and technical failure.
    An open standard is a good idea.
    As far as I can see the important thing will be where the momentum of practice goes when people can see what they are buying.
    There will need to be free materials available for it to be something which is not just a DRM tool.
    ie Depending on the intent of the organisation it could be used to facilitate collaboration or to litigate and the choice would vary depending on the core values of the group using the profile.

    It would be great to be confident that there was a group firmly committed to collaboration between people participating in information sharing and development supportive of communities of user/creators/participants and of bodies of work which can be the cultural and conceptual infrastructure of our future communities without tollways and without fear of loss of access.
    We very much need an organisation which clearly understands and supports commons culture for all participants.

  • Hawkeye

    Hey, ever notice that Lessig is a dead ringer for Radar on MASH?

  • nihongogakusei

    I’ll give you the example but I’m not joining a wiki.

    Japanesepod101.com mix of your categories.

    They have free podcasts, a blog with commenting, and open forums for Japanese language students. They also have subscription only extras including pdf downloads and online self-testing.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/mac_vieuxnez Dustin Kick

    http://www.myspace.com commercial RW, I believe
    Macintosh’s .Mac service commercial RW

  • Jay

    1. iTunes allows you to submit your own podcasts. Doesn’t that make it RW?
    2. Where should we put Craigslist? I feel like good old craigslist gets overlooked amid the more trendy sites out there. CL is sort of commercial, sort of sharing, sort of RO and sort of RW. It’s clearly a hybrid. And they are not evil, which is good.

  • http://www.lessig.org New Yorker

    Emilio Maldonado, 29 has committed murder in New York On January 9th, 2007. A trigger happy gun toting cowboy. He felt the need to carry a gun every where he went. How many New Yorker’s are walking around with loaded, consealed weapons just because they can as Mr. Emilio Maldonado, states. I’m double Maldonado’s age and have never owned a gun, or shot a gun or even murdered anyone. This is the society we are living in today folks. Any time someone walks the street with a loaded firearm they are looking for trouble. The Spokesperson for the Department of Corrections Linda Foglia says after only 2 years on the job Emilio Maldonado made the best possible decission he could taking into consideration no weapons was found and the man he shot was unarmed. And they will not press charges against the Correctional Officer.

  • http://www.thewavingcat.com Peter

    Despite its being non-open source, I’d count Second Life well within the hybrid category. It’s not goods that are shared here (mostly, that is), but the way the common space – and thereby culture – is shared and enriched and populated by its users: Without users contributing to the world of SL, it wouldn’t exist, or only as a stub. (Although you could say tt’s kind of a meta-sharing system.)

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