Collaborative Commons: Why cheap e-books won’t beat copyleft publications

20 October 2014 0
Image licensed as Public Domain: Public Domain Information in the public domain is free for anyone to use, in any way they see fit. This includes exhibition, distribution and making derivative works.

Image licensed as Public Domain: Public Domain Information in the public domain is free for anyone to use, in any way they see fit. This includes exhibition, distribution and making derivative works.

In this series of post we have explored to what extent can we rethink the licensing instruments (perhaps beyond Creative Commons); alternative forms of economic sustainability (freemium); as well as new incentives mechanisms (non-traditional knowledge currencies) into the Open Access movement. Here we will add some arguments to the two first aspects.

Alternative forms of economic sustainability:

On its recently published book, Rifkin (2014) The Zero Marginal Cost Society, argues that the meteoric rise of a global Collaborative Commons might eclipse of capitalism. He presents some interesting arguments to better understand how and why the world of online Open Access might have a promising future, but before we need to clarify what ‘marginal cost’ means:

  • Marginal cost denotes the extra or additional cost of producing 1 extra unit of output (Samuelson, 2010)
  • The amount at any given volume of output by which aggregate costs are changed if the volume of output is increased or decreased by one unit (Thakur, S. G., Ajay Sharma, Vikram).
  • The total cost of a production run for making one additional unit of an item. The fixed costs have already been absorbed by the already produced items and only the direct (variable) costs have to be accounted for. Marginal costs are variable costs consisting of labor and material costs, plus an estimated portion of fixed costs (such as administration overheads and selling expenses). (WebFinance, 2014).

Based on this principle, Rifkin explains that “the cost of actually producing each additional unit—if fixed costs are not counted—becomes essentially zero, making the product nearly free“.

“But what if the marginal cost of producing and distributing a book plummeted to near zero? In fact, it’s already happening. A growing number of authors are writing books and making them available at a very small price, or even for free, on the Internet—bypassing publishers, editors, printers, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers. The cost of marketing and distributing each copy is nearly free. The only cost is the amount of time consumed by creating the product and the cost of computing and connecting online. An e-book can be produced and distributed at near zero marginal cost”.

The near zero marginal cost phenomenon has already wreaked havoc on the publishing and communications industries as more and more information is being made available nearly free to billions of people.

Here a slight rephrasing in brackets “[…]” of Rifkin’s argument from the Open Access perspective:

…the near zero marginal cost revolution argue that while nearly free goods and services [i.e. repositories and full open access journals, DOAJwill become far more prevalent, they will also open up new possibilities for creating other goods and services at sufficient profit margins to maintain growth and even allow the capitalistic system to flourish [apart from the classic examples of hybrid models such as Public Library of Science (PLoS) or BioMed Central (BMC) see 30 hybrid freemium models].

“The diminishing marginal cost of producing and delivering e-books has reduced retail prices significantly and forced smaller publishers and many retail book sellers out of business. Even the cheaper e-books are facing ever stiffer competition from copyleft publications that are distributed for free or nearly free“. (p.203)

Talking about the marginal cost of producing and distributing information at a nearly zero cost, Rifkin mentions the case of online education, MOOCs in particular:

…They [Moocs providers] have yet to fully realize the fact that the near zero marginal cost of education in a global virtual Commons they themselves are creating will increasingly become the new teaching paradigm for higher education, while brick-and-mortar learning eventually will play an ever more circumscribed and narrow supplementary role.

At least in information rich environments the transition from scarcity to abundance has been speeding up — not slowing down. It is still to be seen if smaller and smaller marginal costs liberate goods and services from market pricing (free). In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if in this changing scenario [of open, closed and hybrid models] is there going to be any kind of ‘natural selection‘ phenomena or David will be (finally) able to defeat Goliath.

Rethinking the licensing instruments:

Here some ideas to challenge Copy Right but also Creative Commons. Boyle (2009) argued that ‘[people have] the idealized vision of intellectual property. It is not merely supposed to produce incentives for innovation by rewarding creators, though that is vital… Copyright, intended to be the servant of creativity, a means of promoting access to information, is becoming an obstacle to both. [However] the current intellectual property policy is overwhelmingly and tragically bad in ways that everyone, and not just lawyers or economists, should care about”.

The author claims for the importance of thinking in the “opposite of property” as a concept that is much more important when we come to the world of ideas, information, expression, and invention: “public domain”, which is free of property rights and the user could do with it (content, art or creation) whatever is wanted.

Interestingly, he adds, commons can be restrictive. The term “commons” is generally used to denote a resource over which some group has access and use rights—albeit perhaps under certain conditions. (Creative) Commons is actually based on Copyright and removing the embedded conditions it would open a completely new open perspective.

The-Public-Domain-Grunge-White-Stamp-finalBoyle claims that the public domain has a vital and tragically neglected role to play in innovation and culture: Public domain has been a grand experiment, one that should not be allowed to die. The ability to draw freely on the entire creative output of humanity is one of the reasons we live in a time of such fruitful creative ferment.


  • Samuelson, P. A. (2010). Economics. Tata McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Thakur, S. G., Ajay Sharma, Vikram. (n.d.). Cost Accounting. FK Publications.
  • WebFinance. (2014). What is marginal cost? definition and meaning. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from
  • Rifkin, Jeremy. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. Macmillan, 2014.
  • Boyle, James. The public domain: Enclosing the commons of the mind. Yale University Press, 2009.