The (Open) Secret Sauce

Fellow Interintellect Andy Mac reflects on Nadia Eghbal’s new book Working in Public

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Written by Andy Mac for the Interintellect

A big thank you to Interintellect founder Anna Gát both for encouraging me in my own venture to work in public and for hosting Nadia Eghbal at a fireside chat at our community which is striding towards the future of IP creation and collaboration that Nadia describes in her book.

For a business to give away the secret sauce of its product seems not just counterintuitive but suicidal, yet some of the most pervasive software organizations (for-profit and otherwise) are doing just that, and becoming valued for billions of dollars in the process (see Red Hat’s $34 billion acquisition). This trend is technically described as “open source” and while currently it describes an offshoot of software product development, Nadia Eghbal digs into this snowballing trend in her debut title, “Working in Public” where the source code of software is openly exposed and available for any third party to use if it were their own invention.

In pursuing her inquiry, Nadia teases out multiple threads, and the tail-end of one caught my eye: Why is software currently the only discipline that not only facilitates, but widely encourages an open source approach to the development of what could otherwise be insanely valuable intellectual property? And could this be applied to other disciplines like media? I think so, the key is understanding the incentive structures that enable open source to flourish in software and the systems that discourage it in media — and how technology continues to uncover new ways for people to come together and collaborate.

Open source emergence

The first step is understanding why open source is prevalent in software. More than any other endeavor, software projects inspire a range of contributors, from academics to self taught weekend warriors, and each participant has their own reasons for participating. These reasons usually map to three motivators. The first motivator is the prospect of “fame” attributed to creators of successful open source projects. The second motivator is the feeling of “giving back” by contributing to a project with a large user base that can benefit from the improvements. There is also a financial or practical incentive for contributors to add improvements to projects that can then be incorporated in a completely separate project and drop the need to recreate the same solution from scratch.

This approach will create a new kind of discourse and unlock the same kind of wealth creation opportunities for both a new kind of creator and the IP owner that opening the secrets of software was able to do for participants in the technology sector.

However, even though certain open source projects have a “giving back” aura to them, plenty of for-profit organizations have open sourced the underlying technology powering their projects as well. Companies like Confluent, Sentry, and MongoDB are increasingly open sourcing either all or aspects of their underlying source code as a way of attracting attention from third party developers. This speaks to the rising prominence of two other phenomena: third party developers as a first-class user citizen and the concept of an ecosystem of a series of third party applications that are either natively designed with the underlying technology or neatly integrated into it.

Hollywood paranoia

With that in mind, we return to the opening question: Why haven’t other industries and disciplines — particularly media and entertainment IP emanating out of Hollywood — made efforts to introduce an open source approach to their work? If anything, the various entities within Hollywood could kick off a series of divergent cultural renaissances by making the underlying universes fleshed out by these various intellectual properties easily usable by n-number of filmmakers and artists. Imagine an open source approach to franchises like “Star Wars,” with each storyteller bringing their own perspective and aesthetic to the property. They would also be able to focus on telling engaging stories rather than fighting for a single position to repeatedly tell the same story each year. Contrast that potential with the 2020 release year’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure 3. No doubt a fun film, but yet another testament to Hollywood’s risk aversion to anything that does not have at least a 40 year pedigree. Hollywood has become so mortified of risk, they have traded solvency for creative bankruptcy.

From its onset, Hollywood is the story of hard-nosed entrepreneurs building their studios, fleeing from New York and the Edison Trust, and then working to build their oligopoly that shut down any potential competition using both labor unions and thug tactics to drive would be upstarts out of town and locking in their roster of stars with ironbound contracts. There are many reasons for the thuggish behavior, including the profile of the founders themselves, but mostly because they understood the competitive nature of the products they were producing.

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From: Stripe Press

Although the Hollywood landscape has changed considerably in the last 100 years of the ecosystem, the mindset of a limited audience size and zero sum economics has remained true, regardless whether applied to the (downward trending) movie theater audiences or television. As a result participants in the Hollywood space are spurred on by a hyper competitive mentality to the point where creative collaboration itself is high-friction, requiring lawyers, agents, managers, and studio executives to bless projects.

Why is software currently the only discipline that not only facilitates, but widely encourages an open source approach to the development of what could otherwise be insanely valuable intellectual property?

As a result, the Hollywood ecosystem fixated on managing risk and boxing out competitors from releasing similar films in the same window as them, and this culture of risk aversion trickled down to all aspects of the business. Small surprise then that the culture stratified into a caste system, with each participant in the hierarchy doubtful that growing the economic pie was even an option.

Making media in public

However, just as the internet arguably enabled the coalescing of communities around open source projects that anyone has access to understand and contribute to or rework for their own use-cases in mind, the second wave of social media demonstrated how many-to-many collaborative relationships were possible. We can see this by digging into any number of media brands that emerged out of YouTube including Machinima, Rooster Teeth, and less publicized (but arguably even more well known) creator brands like CaptainSparklez that published high fidelity animations in the aesthetic style of fan favorite games like Minecraft. These projects involved the talents of several artistic disciplines and garnered hundreds of millions of views on product development timelines measured in weeks, not the expected months for a similar project size in the old Hollywood order.

Now that we have considerable evidence for these emergent behaviors, one interesting opportunity is to provide an easy way for both IP owners and fans to easily participate. We even see how the game industry’s reaction already ranges from tacit approval to openly embracing, even paying influencers to promote their games by making video content about their game experiences that these influencers then own unconditionally. In stark contrast to Hollywood’s fears, this emergent behavior has not threatened the integrity of the underlying video game IP that the videos feature, but have actually contributed to perpetuating the explosive growth of the video game space in the last decade and a half.

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The next and final step towards an open source, working-in-public model is to provide trust to both the IP owner and the content creator aspiring to use that IP that ultimately both parties will win from the cumulative success of the IP as well as each of their own contributions to it. This is only possible today through arduously drawn out agreements and legal attrition that are not at all conducive to a frictionless collaborative environment — and that assumes the aspiring third party creator is able to make any kind of contact with the IP owner to begin with. In the future, IP owners will be able to safely “open source” both IP and any underlying assets (eg 3D models, animation rigs, set environments) to anyone aspiring to create their own content and in return expect any derivative works created with this IP to perform the proper attributions back the original IP which could include credits, backlinks, and even any messaging in the content itself.

This approach will create a new kind of discourse and unlock the same kind of wealth creation opportunities for both a new kind of creator and the IP owner that opening the secrets of software was able to do for participants in the technology sector.

And in that spirit, I will work to make my own inquiry on this subject as public as I can, because it is through that open discourse I believe we will discover the most compelling approach to crossing this new frontier of idea creation.

Thank you and inspiration

  1. Anna and the community — thank you once again!
  2. Big thanks to fellow Interintellect Igor Lenterman for some of the most thorough and thoughtful editing I lucked into getting
  3. I admire Jesse Walden’s conviction to co-found and start building this future — he shares some of his insights on crypto and open source on this a16z podcast
  4. YouTube creator CPG Grey outlines the current time extension games some IP owners currently play in Forever Less One Day

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