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Does coworking need a license?

6 minute read
by Alex Hillman

I’ve been trying to deduce some of the missing links I see with the coworking community that I’ve grown to love oh so much. Not just IndyHall and the organizations in its periphery, but the place where some might say the most central coworking activity takes place: the coworking google group.

We’ve never been exclusive about who joins the list. That would be counter to the mission.

We moderate, but only to keep spam out of the inboxes of well over 1000 people around the world participating in the coworking conversation. Cuz we hate spam, and we know you do too.

Wait. Over 1000 people on the list? Yes, that’s a lot, but that’s only a fraction of the people talking about “coworking” and, more importantly, the people doing “coworking”.

That brings me to my point.

In early days on the coworking list, it was easy to keep talley of who was up to what because there were only a few dozen people. It was easy to know what people were up to, and keep a mental note of each person’s progress.

Now with people joining the list in droves (a good thing, mind you, that I’m both happy and proud of), and yet still hundreds or thousands not making mention of themselves on the list, I wonder if a crucial part of the global coworking community is being underserved.

When I describe the beauty of the coworking movement to someone, it goes something like this:

Coworking isn’t really a franchise, but it’s sort of an open source franchise.

I say that in the capacity that there is no monetary buy in to participate in the community, and yet, you’ve got the experiences (successes and failures) of everyone before you to work with. We’ve got a wickedly strong toolbox, and you can have it.

At this stage in the game, with all of the press, you’ve got a very strong brand and high rate of press visiblity to work with. You can use whatever you want. It’s here for you.

All we ask is that as you grow, learn, and achieve, you remember where you started and keep us posted. This isn’t just for us, cuz we’re going to do it too. It’s for the generations to come, as the movement grows, morphs, and evolves.

So if it seems a little absurd that I’m freaking out about people branding themselves as “coworking” and not contributing to the list (or any visible forum), you see what I’m getting at?

It’d be like opening a burger stand that sells Two AllBeef Patties Special Sauce Lettuce Cheese Pickles Onion on a Sesame Seed Bun, slapping a pair of golden arches on your window, and calling yourself McDonald’s. You think they’d be pissed about that?

Of course.

And it’s not even about trademark and copyright (ok, with McDonald’s it is).

In the case of coworking that I’m trying to illustrate, it’s about representation.

I’m not asking for a financial buy in to use the brand “coworking” (if anybody should, it’d be Brad Neuberg, but even he doesn’t want that from you). The fact that Brad has only ever asked that his name be attributed as the origin of the word as related to this movement is key, and I understand his reasoning completely: the success of the movement that contributed groundwork to is a crucial part of his C.V., and when he gets around to his next big idea, it’s important that his attribution in the coworking history books is present.

Attribution. Linkbacks. A track record for, and of, sharing. This is all really, really important or else the whole thing risks toppling in on itself.

I think part of the problem is that we only took care of part of the equation when discussed coworking core values back in the fall of last year. Not unlike open source software, open source models like coworking should probably have some sort of license attributed to them. That way if and when people abuse the groundwork laid for them.

And, in this case, that’s a lot of hard work by a lot of people, not just me or Geoff or Bart or Brad or Chris or Tara or Amit or Tony or Patrick or Dan or Eva or Raines or Felicity or Marcus or Jacob or Susan or Matthew or Ned or John or anyone else that’s been involved in this community, online or off. And I know I forgot a lot of people people…it’s a BIG ass group. I love you all, seriously. But my illustration is my point. Too many people to thank. So shouldn’t we be careful in preserving the opportunities for thanks that we still have?

What would a coworking license look like? I’m not totally sure yet. I know I’m not interested in restriction, since that would be entirely counter to the principles of the movement. I’m just looking at little things to help enforce reciprocity.

Am I interested in policing such a thing? Of course not.

But if there’s something on paper, misunderstandings can be dealt with.

Even open source software has a license. Who and what it protects is what’s different about that license and a license for commercial software.

I’m not pointing fingers. I’m really not upset about any one thing in particular. I’m just making observations.

And remember, I’m not a founder of this movement. I will never, ever take credit for that. I, myself, was one of the people who came along and saw a good thing. It’s brought me some incredible experiences and connections and quite frankly, changed my entire life.

And really, all I want is to help give back even a little piece of what I’ve gotten from this community. As the movement grows, those expectations need to be set forth clearly.

CreativeCommons is a type of license, and it’s designed to set forth expectations. Some like it, some hate it. I think it’s created more freedom for people to experiment with content while attributing sources and linking back.

And since that’s what we want with coworking (more people to experiment on the model and link back to their inspirations, as well as provide new inspirations), I think that could be helpful.

I know not everyone thinks about giving back, and if you require people to, you’ll always be disappointed. That’s the unfortunate reality. I accept that.

I think we’re lucky to be part of a community where the leeching is still the less-common situation. But as the movement grows more and more, the opportunities for exploit increase.

If you think about it, 1000 people are easy to work with, if you compare them to the millions that I know I want to see living and loving the coworking community as much as I do.

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.