I've been thinking about, and recently have started to get asked about, whether my investments in companies that use Creative Commons licenses represents a conflict of interest from the perspective of my role as the CEO of Creative Commons.
This is a valid question and a complex one. My life work involves working on big issues that I believe are important. Fundamentally, I believe in open networks which will enable reform in business, government, academia and society. I think the open Internet will be an important pillar for open society for the 21st Century.
I believe that for these changes to happen, we need to create and protect open standards such as TCP/IP, HTML/HTTP and Creative Commons to allow interoperability and open standards and an explosion of innovation that produces the software, services and infrastructure that supports the communities. Some of these software, services and infrastructure can be created as non-profit projects, but many will be created as start-up companies.
My current work involves spending approximately equal amounts of time working with companies that use Creative Commons as well as helping to manage the Creative Commons process and organization. Recently, just about every new investment that I make is a commercial Internet company that uses Creative Commons and those companies that don't use Creative Commons yet, I am continuously urging to incorporate Creative Commons in their business. In my business life, I'm building a ecology of great companies that work together using Creative Commons as the way they communicate, share and work together.
There are various aspects to the conflict-of-interest issue. One thing that I have to be careful about is using the resources of Creative Commons to unfairly advantage myself or my companies. Another issue would be access to proprietary information because of my role as CEO of Creative Commons which unfairly advantages companies that I'm involved in.
With respect to using resources of the Creative Commons organization unfairly for the benefit of my companies, I think that what I need to do is make a very strong policy to make sure that it is clear to CC staff and the community that they should not provide any unfairly beneficial treatment to my companies. While I might encourage an initial meeting, whether CC spends more or less time supporting and talking to these companies should be determined independently of the relationship with me.
With the respect to proprietary information, I think that at some level, the burden of ethical behavior rests on me. I vow to take confidentiality of information seriously and will try to limit to the greatest extent possible, the creation of propriety information or conversations.
Finally, I believe it is the role of the board and the community make sure that I am behaving in an ethical fashion.
Historically, commercial involvement in standards processes is not a new thing. All companies that are interested in using or supporting open standards typically are involved in funding and participating in the operation of standards bodies and associations. The key to success to to make sure that these organizations are not at risk of capture by these corporate interests.
I believe, but hope that I can make others feel comfortable that, it would be impossible for me to "capture" the CC process. The process is becoming and increasingly diverse and consensus-oriented process. Right now we're at a key moment in the evolution of the organization where we are small enough to move quickly but are becoming more and more complex. Complexity leads to process and one thing that I'd like to avoid is becoming a complicated ICANN-like process.
I believe that all of the companies that I'm involved in are net contributors to Creative Commons. The more companies that use CC the more valuable CC becomes. The more companies that become successful using CC, the more human and financial resources that can be used to support CC. So frankly, I don't feel guilty really.
However, I'm interested interested in hearing any criticism and suggestions on how I might increase people's comfort with this issue. I believe that disclosure is an important part of the solution. All of my business and other interests are on my wiki. I think that just about every company that I'm involved in uses Creative Commons.
Sorry about the long post, but I take this issue seriously and am really interested in what people think.