Open Source Beer Fellowship

Beer by definition belongs in the public domain. To be more clear, copyright protection doesn’t extend to recipes, at least as expressed in terms of mere lists of ingredients. Brewing as a hobby and a trade flourishes despite the lack of intellectual monopoly. Beyond existence in what is often called an intellectual monopoly negative space, most home brewers and many craft breweries very much embody a spirit of sharing that embraces and builds on the spirit of the public domain. In particular, the parallels between open source software, enabled by a bit of legal trickery in the form of condition or contract on copyright, and small scale brewering are quite compelling. (I use small scale to encompass both home breweres and commercial craft brewers.)

Both are often motivated by the creation of products that suit the taste of the creator and the absence of such products out in the world. Collaboration is usually seen as a positive rather than a competitive threat. Meritocracy rules the day, the quality of work and clear exhibition of mastery often trump market considerations such as price or messaging. If you search for either open source software or homebrew recipes, you will find items of all varieties that match.

Given this strong overlap, it isn’t surprising that John and I both work with open source to varying degrees and maintain an interest in both constructed intellectual commons and the public domain. Through our volunteering efforts, we’ve even come into the orbit of one of the strongest advocates for the public domain, Carl Malamud. We’ve crafted a beer out of the respect we hold for Carl’s efforts in improving access to the text of our laws and multimedia materials produced by the government.

Carl has a new project in the works to which we hope to be able to link soon. Based on our past interactions, John, his wife who makes all our beer labels, and I have been tapped by Carl’s non-profit,, as Open Source Fellows. Our project?

“Our Nation’s Attic.” An exploration and demonstration of the importance of works of the government in promoting creativity and economic activity through the creation and documentation of an American Pale Ale, an open source beer.

Given what I’ve said about copyright not applying to recipes and the parallels from the world of software, open souce beer may seem redundant. There are other protections for recipes, however, mostly in the form of secrecy, trade or otherwise. As supportive as the commercial craft brewers are of hobbyists, few if any openly publish their recipes. The large volume of clone recipes available are the product of reverse engineering and exist legally due to the lack of copyright. Tolerance and support are not the same as affirmative siganls and sharing of information that once disclosed is in the public domain.

Our Nation’s Attic will be an open source beer recipe in a positive sense. John and I will publish the initial recipe with the clear intention of other home brewers using it to make their own beer from it. To that end we are committed to publishing our notes throughout the development and brewing of this beer with an eye towards common adaptations both in process (all grain, partial grain, and extract) and ingredients which frequently vary based on local availability. The notes, which will be subject to copyright, we will dedicate to the public domain.

Going beyond our own efforts producing batches to evaluate and tune the recipe, we’ve discussed possibly developing a declarative signal, something like a logo mark, to identify home brews produced from recipes that are openly shared. We’d like to seek out other brewers, hobbyist and if we can find willing ones commercial ones, willing to use our recipe and post their own tweaks for further sharing. Lacking a copyright, we cannot compel a share-alike or copyleft condition. It is our hope that the spirit of collaboration among brewers is strong enough that we’ll get at least a few takers and perhaps get many more to think about how opening the source of their own beers would enable far more experimentation and enjoyment.

Stay tuned for updates both on Our Nation’s Attic and our further efforts in cultivating concrete practices of open sharing in brewing. For my part, based on my deeper interest in policy and its history, I will try to pull together some more posts expanding on the themes identified in the definition of our fellowship project.

To the extent possible under law, Thomas Gideon has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to Open Source Beer Fellowship. This work is published from: United States.

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