Framing idea for introducing newcomers to concept of public goods

The other day @wolftune and I were discussing the wiki about/intro page that I have been working on and we (well mostly Aaron) stumbled onto a framing that we think would be useful when introducing newcomers to Snowdrift. Specifically we were discussing how leading with an introduction to the concept/definition of public goods would be a good way to begin to illustrate the what and why behind Snowdrift; especially because many newcomers may not yet have a full understanding of the distinction between public/private/common/club goods, and some of those lines can get fuzzy at times. As most of us here know, in order for a good to be public, it must be non-rivalrous, and non-exclusive, but we thought an easy way to illustrate that distinction is with a simple sort of ‘test’ to be applied to any might-be-public-good:

  1. Is it rivalrous?
  2. Is it exclusive of the four freedoms, i.e. the freedoms to use, study, modify, and share?

If both answers are no, then it’s a public good! If the good in question is non-rivalrous but is exclusive of even one of these freedoms, it’s a club good. In some ways this might seem like a pretty obvious approach, but I think framing it as a test like this is useful and very succinct. Writing as someone to whom these ideas are still relatively new, I would get tripped up sometimes when confronted with an example of a good that granted some of those freedoms but not all.

Anyway, this is just sort of a seed of an idea, but we thought it might be a useful thing to include or even lead with in that About page (it could be useful on some other wiki pages too, like here maybe?), and that it was just worth sharing/discussing in a more general way too.

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In the conversation, we got to applying this test. Concrete examples will force us to clarify the test itself so we end up with reliably precise questions. Examples off the top of my head:

  • Wikipedia?
    • Non-rivalrous to read (ignoring near-zero bandwidth server costs), but there’s rivalry around whose edits get accepted and stable officially (we can’t both edit the same sentence in conflicting ways and get our version on the main page). Take away: we need to clarify that the rivalrous question in general is fuzzy and doesn’t apply to the issue of publishing a specific recognized/endorsed/official edition.
    • Use with freedom? check. Study? check (we can see the raw markup, the history, and also the source code of the software that runs it) Modify? check (besides modifying directly, we can modify our own copy, and that is the test we care about). Share? check (it’s fine that it has the Share-Alike restriction that says you can’t remove the freedoms when you share it, but otherwise, sharing is unemcumbered and non-exclusive, anyone can copy and share.

So, updated fleshed out test questions:

Is it rivalrous or exclusive:

  1. to use?
  2. to study?
  3. to modify a copy?
  4. to share (i.e. publish and copy for others, both original or modified versions)?

Let’s consider another example:

  • Public park?
    • Use? There are often some restrictions on when use is allowed and restrictions on what the park may be used for, so it’s fuzzy and not unambiguously free from usage restrictions. It’s rivalrous at a point where it gets crowded or one type of use (e.g. some particular game) limits use for others
    • Study? sure
    • Modify (a copy)? Sure, if you copy a park by making another with the same design, you are free to modify that copy, but copying has practical feasibility issues. Modifying the original park itself is rivalrous to whatever extend it’s allowed anyway (which is usually limited)
    • Share? Yes

Okay, parks are clearly fuzzy and have a lot of aspects of public goods but have rivalrous aspects which make them more like common-pool resources, rivalrous but non-exclusive.

  • Public radio (e.g. NPR in the U.S.)?
    • Use? Sure, everyone can listen at once, no rivalry, no exclusions
    • Study? Well, how far does this freedom go? Do we need to have access to the unedited source materials to study how the stories were put together? Studying is free for the primary published material, and unlike software programs, we don’t really need the source material to know what the story is doing or how it works.
    • Modify (a copy)? Sure, privately copying and editing radio stories isn’t blocked for anyone
    • Share? NO! Even public radio has All Rights Reserved terms that require special permission for anyone to publish the stories. Each affiliate station pays for the right to do this. And sharing modified versions is only allowed up to where it counts as “fair use” under U.S. law.

So, public radio is a club good even though use is non-exclusive. The freedom to share is limited to an exclusive club.

Perhaps the Open Content 5 R’s could be a good alternative test. Retain, Revise, Remix, Reuse, Redistribute. Another good formal definition is the Open Definition which defines “Open Works”[1] Importantly, the Open Definition highlights access which all the other definitions seem to ignore or sideline, but that is key to public goods. It’s not enough to have freedom to use if accessing something at all is restricted or artificially limited.

We already reference the Open Definition among other definitions for required terms for projects at Snowdrift Wiki - Project Requirements

The question here is how to boil down these formal terms into something that is accessible to the general public and successfully pumps their intuitions.

I suggested that there are unambiguous public goods and semi-public-goods (or partially-public, however we want to say it).

So, we’re looking for a question everyone can easily ask even if they aren’t comfortable answering it at first. Something like “can anyone and everyone freely Retain, Revise, Remix, Reuse, and Redistribute the work?” If so, that counts as public goods.

One concern: I want people to focus on the economic nature of public goods, not just the question of whether publications are FLO. The FLO-digital-works test questions might be too narrow. Cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Gyre is economically a public goods issue. The result of the work benefits the whole world not some exclusive group, the value is non-rivalrous and non-exclusive. But it doesn’t fit the 5 R’s or 4 freedoms. The important thing is that it doesn’t fail the test questions. It just doesn’t apply. Use of a healthier world isn’t rivalrous or exclusive, nor is studying, modifying copies, or sharing… it’s just that copying isn’t something that applies at all.

So, maybe the test should focus on whether there are restrictions.

A carefully complete test

I’ve updated the test with my preferred and precise language for all the important points:

  1. Is it rivalrous? I.e. does one person enjoying the work reduce its availability or value to others?
  2. Are any freedoms reserved to an exclusive club? Particularly the freedoms to access the resource, to retain copies, to revise copies (with access to enough source material that revision is practical and not hampered), to remix, to use and reuse, and to share (both original and modified versions)?

I don’t like the verboseness of the explanations, but the two key questions are pretty short and clear. I didn’t include the freedom to modify the original/official version as that seems inevitably rivalrous, so while that could be either exclusive or non-exclusive, it can’t be a public-goods feature (or else nothing would be public goods).


Wikipedia passes the test.

Parks can pass the test only with notable qualifications (rivalry depends if there’s a risk of crowding; there’s no restrictions on the freedoms but they mostly are non-applicable)

Public radio fails the test (freedom to share is exclusive)

Environmental clean-up passes the test (with the caveat that the freedoms are non-applicable)

Let’s add one more: GitLab partially passes the test because the FLO part of their work passes, but the proprietary features are exclusive, so as a whole project, it fails the test.

We aren’t planning to fund stuff like parks let alone environmental clean-up work. But we could in principle expand to those things because they do have the core economic public-goods situation that we’re focusing on addressing. Clearing a snowdrift from the road is itself in this category. So, I think explicitly including this in the scope of the intuitions we give newcomers is important. It’s not enough that people understand that we’re funding FLO digital works, our priority is that people notice that FLO digital works are a type of public goods, and they need a concept of public goods in order to see that and then really have it click what the issues are here.

  1. Open Works are explicitly limited to computer-based digital publications by specifying that they must be in a machine-readable format, and it goes deeper than most other definitions by adding an Open Format requirement stating that works must be usable without the need for proprietary software. (Side-note, I was one of the committee members that created the updated Open Definition) ↩︎

1 Appreciation

I struggle with this a bit when explaining to people. I don’t think it’s just the verbose-ness (although “non-rivalrous” is a mouthful); I think the main issue is how many new terms we’re introducing at once. Rivalrous, club goods, public goods… the only one we really care about is “public goods”. That requires an understanding of what public goods are not, but it doesn’t require them to remember the term for it.

So, I think something with a little less formal language might be useful here. Like:

Litmus test for public goods

  1. Is is naturally scarce?
  2. Is it artificially scarce?

These aren’t quite technically correct, but I think they’re close enough, and the concepts of artificial scarcity and “post-scarcity society” are slightly more well-known (people might at least have heard the term before).

1 Appreciation

This is good (avoiding the jargon of “rivalrous”). But the core point I was bringing up is that we need to clarify that the scarcity/exclusion in question refers to a full set of freedoms. So, I want people not to think that access to public radio is enough, we have to ask them to test the set of freedoms. Public radio fails because publishing/sharing rights are artificially scarce.

So maybe:

A. Is it naturally scarce?
B. Are there restrictions on who can freely and practically: (1) copy, (2) use, (3) change, and (4) share?

If “no” to both, then it’s a public good!

Testing the test:

  • Wikipedia: No scarcity or exclusions, it’s a public good!
  • Public park: well, there’s some scarcity in terms of potential crowding, and copying is not really a thing… maybe sorta public good if there’s no realistic crowding or per-use wear-and-tear, but maybe it’s more like a commons than a public good
  • Public radio: not scarce, but yeah there’s restrictions on who can change and share it; not a full public good
  • Environmental clean-up (of public area like the ocean): there’s no scarcity to the benefits (we all benefit) and no restrictions (it’s just that copying and changing and sharing don’t really apply), I guess it’s a public good!
  • GitLab software (not the host service): well, it’s not scarce, but there are restrictions on who can copy, use, change, and share the proprietary features. So, not a complete public good.
  • Some unlicensed code on GitHub: well, technically that’s All Rights Reserved, so that amounts to restrictions, not a public good technically
  • Some gratis software stated that anyone can do anything with it, but with no published source code: well, only the guy with the source code can practically change it, so that amounts to one of the freedoms being exclusive, thus not a full public good.
  • Fish in the sea: naturally scarce, not a public good.

I think my updated 2-point test works and is the best yet. And “copy, use, change, and share” covers it enough. It’s missing “study” but the source question is captured by “practically”. I like including “copy” (a la “retain” from the Rs) because various other things like change/modify need to be understood as adapting copies not necessarily the original and because retention is indeed vital.

I absolutely love this discussion and think it will align well with the hopefully-accepted SeaGL talk!

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Proposing an update that doesn’t avoid jargon because full avoidance will confuse those who know or see the jargon. We just don’t want to rely on it. So, by using the jargon as test-name (not only 1 2 or A B), I think this is the best yet:

Is this a public goods project?

A. Rivalry test: Is it naturally scarce?
B. Club goods test: Are there restrictions on who can freely and practically: (1) copy, (2) use, (3) change, and (4) share?

Notes on wording details

I’m not sure about “rivalry” vs “rivalrous” vs “rivalrousness” and about “club goods” vs “exclusive” vs “exclusions” vs “exclusive club” or similar. But I’m pretty sure that using a name for each test is ideal. I really like this format of “Test name: test question?”

One more note on the wording “restrictions” is great because it implies artificial. There are limits to who can practically change something just based on changes that require expertise to do, but nobody would call that “restrictions”. So, we can’t just say “can anybody freely and practically…” the question is definitely whether there are “restrictions on who…”

At this point, I think it’s pretty close to perfect in that every detail of the test serves a specific necessary purpose.

1 Appreciation

I still like “artificial scarcity” as a more well-known term, and I like using “scarce” in both questions to tie them together. Maybe something like

  1. Rivalry test: Is it naturally scarce?
    • Some more specific “litmus test” questions here, to explain how to answer the main question.
  2. Club goods test: Is it artificially scarce?
    • Are there restrictions on who can freely and practically: (1) copy, (2) use, (3) change, and (4) share?
1 Appreciation

That natural-vs-artificial is super great and clear if we only cared about access.

However, the intuitions it pumps are the very ones I’m trying to get past in this topic. “Artificially scarce” gives everyone the sense that the resource could be available to everyone but it’s paywalled. It pushes everyone to say that public radio is not artificially scarce, and then they are set up to argue or feel jerked around when we say “yeah, but publishing rights are scarce” (that’s just a bad use of “scarce”).

“Artificially scarce” really only works for paywalls. The top priority for this whole topic is to aim directly at everyone right away intuiting that the freedoms are the key question and not something tacked on.

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Reflecting today, I think again the win-win is to have the jargon but not rely on it, and I think “exclusive” is a term we need to include. So:

Is this a public goods project?

A. Rivalry test: Is it naturally scarce?
B. Exclusivity test: Are there restrictions on who can freely and practically: (1) copy, (2) use, (3) change, and (4) share?

And this makes it easy to tie into the oft-used grid (which I’ve adapted in very specific ways that I think make it far more accessible than any other versions I’ve seen):


Note: that’s a screen shot from elsewhere because apparently Discourse doesn’t respect colspan and rowspan in tables. I don’t like the zebra-striping. I’d like to have it highlight the two No’s to point right to public goods.

HTML for table
      <th colspan="2" rowspan="2">Types of goods</th>
      <th colspan="2" style="text-align: center; vertical-align: middle;">Scarce?</th>
      <th rowspan="2" style="text-align: center; vertical-align: middle;">Exclusive?</th>
      <td>Private goods</td>
      <td>Club goods</td>
      <td><strong>Public goods</strong></td>

One more note: Wikipedia (and elsewhere) use “excludable” instead of “exclusive”, and I dislike that. Something is public goods not only based on whether exclusions are possible but whether they are actually done. Something is inevitably non-exclusive if it is non-excludable. But excludable things that are not actually made exclusive can still be public goods as long as exclusions are not added.

Overall, I think we should embrace this chart and the (improved) technical terms but frame them with the improved, accessible test questions. Then, it all needs to be presented in a clear order that succeeds at getting everyone to have the core intuitions. Once people have their intuitions sorted out, they are ready for understanding everything else we are focused on, crowdmatching, cooperation, etc etc

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This is a really interesting thread. I don’t feel qualified to contribute much on the subject yet, but I wanted to say that having the visual of the table really helped my brain to process the information! I’d be happy to see that at an early stage of browsing the site, but I don’t think I’d want to be overloaded with all the details too early on.

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I was thinking further about our framing of public goods.

I think we can and probably should take the positive angle about public goods and avoid direct negativity about club goods. All we need is to suggest that there are great reasons to care about public goods, and thus the need for a way to support them better.

In the past, I’ve often been critical and defensive about the injustices of club goods. They set up power dynamics that are often abused and we don’t get to see what we’re missing about all the potential evolution and creativity that is blocked, and so on. Going forward, I still think it’s okay to discuss the way the power around club goods can be abused, but obviously the power doesn’t have to be used badly.

I think we will thrive by simply emphasizing that the four types of economic goods exist, that public goods have value that is distinct, every sort of goods faces different economic challenges, and we are specifically focused on public goods. Just celebrate that. We can invite any club goods project to consider switching to public goods terms if they feel it’s the right decision for that case. We can say that we want to make that decision easier by providing a better method for funding public goods.

We’re still implicitly criticizing club goods by emphasizing the benefits of public goods. I just think the focus should be on how great public goods can be rather than on how bad club goods can be.

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