where the system eats itself

Larry Lessig just launched MayOne.us, the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs. The idea is disarmingly simple: since SuperPACs funded by billionaires are corrupting politics, let’s crowd-source a SuperPAC funded by individuals, which will then work to put in power officials who answer to the people, maybe by undoing the whole SuperPAC insanity. Use a SuperPAC to kill all SuperPACs.

This is a fascinating pattern that we’ve actually seen before. And it makes me very, very happy, because it is the ultimate policy hack.

Take the GPL or the Apache License, two significant software licenses that make possible open-source and thus much of today’s software. These licenses, especially the GPL, enforce certain constraints on how source code can be used. If you take GPL source code, modify it, and redistribute it, you have to provide the source code to your modifications, too. If you don’t… you lose your license on the code to begin with, and now you’re guilty of copyright violation because you redistributed code without permission.

In other words, many open-source licenses work only because they leverage strong copyright law. The same goes for Creative Commons: you can freely license your work while requiring that people give you credit for it, or, if you prefer, only if they use it for non-commercial purposes. The only reason you can add those constraints is because Creative Commons is layered on top of Copyright. Some people believe Copyright Law has overreached. Those same people are using that Copyright overreach as a foundation for a stronger Commons.

The GPL, Creative Commons, and now MayOne basically use the overreach of the system against itself.

I find this idea – that an unnaturally strong system of rules can be counter-balanced by using the system against itself – fascinating and kind of awesome. Are there other areas where this can be applied?

But before I digress: go pledge to MayOne.us. Let’s make SuperPACs eat themselves.