The Value of Sharing


Yesterday I wrote about how the media industries abuse language in order to justify their broken business models; today I'd like to complement this by looking at their misuse of numbers.

One of the weapons in the intellectual monopolists' armoury is citing the economic damage that sharing puportedly causes. What's remarkable is that the numbers usually quoted – around $250 billion – have been touted for decades, creating a kind of self-referential justification. But as this excellent analysis by Ars Technica shows, that by-now hallowed number simply does not add up:

If you pay any attention to the endless debates over intellectual property policy in the United States, you'll hear two numbers invoked over and over again, like the stuttering chorus of some Philip Glass opera: 750,000 and $200 to $250 billion. The first is the number of U.S. jobs supposedly lost to intellectual property theft; the second is the annual dollar cost of IP infringement to the U.S. economy. These statistics are brandished like a talisman each time Congress is asked to step up enforcement to protect the ever-beleaguered U.S. content industry. And both, as far as an extended investigation by Ars Technica has been able to determine, are utterly bogus.

The article picks apart the figures at great length, and is well worth reading. But I'd like to think about these numbers from a different angle. Or, rather, I'd like to talk about the other side of the coin: just how much value sharing *creates*, rather than destroys.

Unfortunately, I can't do that for the kind of digital content that the media industries are talking about; but I can do it for open source software, thanks to some research by Black Duck:

Black Duck Software has the industry’s most comprehensive database of open source software and related metadata. According to the company’s research, there are over 200,000 open source projects representing over 4.9 billion lines of code. Using its detailed knowledge of open source projects and applying standard industry cost estimation techniques, Black Duck estimates that the total development cost of OSS exceeds $387 billion and represents a collective investment of more than two million developer years.

Now, I am not so naïve as to take these figures at face value. Although they certainly have rather more basis in fact than those put around by the media industries for the last decade, I regard them more as indicative of the kind of value that open source is creating. In order of magnitude terms, they show that there is as much value creation from sharing as even the maximalist fantasies of the intellectual monopolists claim is being destroyed.

And yet, as usual, we hear only one side of the story, with the constant barrage of industry propaganda about how file sharing is “threatening” the media industries, “destroying” the economy – and probably leading to male pattern baldness as well. Black Duck has done a service in quantifying – however roughly – the positive contribution of code sharing to the economy, allowing us to put things in some sort of context.

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