Ever since the birth of the free software movement, its defenders have struggled to explain just what "free software" is. If it is free, how do coders eat? And how do businesses that support the software – IBM, Hewlett-Packard – make any money from it?
The standard answer has been a slogan: "Think free," the movement's founder, Richard Stallman puts it, "as in free speech, not free beer." You can charge whatever you want for free software. But what you can't do is lock up the knowledge that makes it run. Others must be allowed to learn from and tinker with it. No one is permitted a monopoly on the teaching that stands behind it.
A bunch of Danes, however, apparently didn't get the memo. In June, a Copenhagen artists' collective called SUPERFLEX released version 3.0 of a new beer called – you guessed it – Free Beer. "Free beer?" you ask. "Think free," SUPERFLEX members helpfully explained at the launch, "as in free software." Under the supervision of Birthe Skands, former chief of development at Carlsberg Beer, the brewery is now scaling up quickly to meet unexpectedly high demand. The first batch of 2,850 70-cl bottles (generous at about 24 ounces, so the natural tendency is to share) sold out practically overnight. Distribution deals are being negotiated with other breweries, especially overseas. And SUPERFLEX has now established a Free Beer Foundation to spread the profits to other like-minded projects.
What makes Free Beer free is the same thing that makes free software free: Its recipe is open and licensed freely. Anyone can make improvements. But anyone who distributes an improved version must release the changes as well. SUPERFLEX keeps a log of the updates at www.freebeer.org, and it will release a new version every six months. Skands is inviting the world to help her make better beer, and in exchange the brewery is keeping the knowledge free for everyone.
Copyright mavens will wonder if such a license could really work in the US (where recipes are not copyrightable). But that quibble has slowed neither this particular "open business" nor the movement of which it is a part. Indeed, we're seeing an explosion of open source businesses. Some are about developing software, like the Firefox browser. Others simply leverage the model of free software to forge a different kind of business, from the wildly popular Web-tagging tool del.icio.us and the blog-tracking search engine Technorati to the extraordinarily successful video site Revver, which embeds an ad bug into freely licensed user-generated videos, then pays the users as the clips spread. All of these businesses build upon the value created by their users, while keeping that value free for others to build upon as well.
When we begin to look at the range of examples – OpenBusiness.cc has a prominent collection – we might learn something from the pattern. Some have already seen enough to publish their insights. The short list of these books is led by MIT professor Eric von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation. Open source businesses, von Hippel explains, know that their customers are not idiots. These companies encourage customers to tinker with their products; they then learn from this tinkering how to make the products better. Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks places this commercial practice in a larger and perhaps more significant social context: Although peer production is profitable for business, writes Benkler, "we are in the midst of a quite basic transformation in how we perceive the world around us and how we act, alone and in concert with others." What he calls nonmarket peer production is a critical part of this transformation. The trick is not making it happen, but making it flourish. And if my Wired boss, Chris Anderson, is right (and obviously, he must be) that we've entered the land of the long tail – where digital technology supports a massively more diverse range of products and models for production – then, as he puts it, making the consumer a producer is an excellent way to move a business up the long tail. In this model, free knowledge can drive a particular kind of free market – at least a kind that seems to flourish in a digital world.
Stallman is annoyed that SUPERFLEX calls its project "open source beer": "You should have called it 'free software beer,'" he said prior to the Free Beer launch. But he no doubt recognizes the potential of this hack. As thousands are surprised by the quality of this fantastic beer yet puzzled by its name, at least some will read the explanation prominently printed on its large and striking label. And a few of those may then think a bit more about what helps innovation flourish. It's not any magic word, like free or open. It is instead a practice that encourages the widest range of innovators. SUPERFLEX has inspired this practice with beer. And perhaps with much more as well.
- Lawrence Lessig