Open Source Heroes: Mark Meadows, CEO of Geppetto Labs

Consumer Guide / Contributor / Culture / Interview / North America / Open Source / Tech

“People who trademark intellectual property only have one idea. They're busy protecting that one idea, and it doesn't allow for growth.”

Paperhouses talks to Mark Meadows, Founder and CEO of Geppetto Labs. We actually meet through a mutual friend, who assured if it was an impassioned rant about copyright Ph was looking for, this was our guy. Reading his work online though, we learn Mark is no rabblerouser. He's mostly a wanderer, an observer and a dad, but quite the successful engineer. He has spent the last seven years living on a sailboat with his wife and son, having traversed four of the seven seas, and incidentally he founded the third website ever ( He currently helms Geppetto Labs, and writes interactive fantasy stories. We asked him to tell us a bit about his work and the importance of keeping content open.

What we're doing at Geppetto Labs is essentially creating the hearts and minds of robots. Our clients range from stereo to robotics to medical. Anywhere there is a knowledge base that you want to interact with, or when you have small screen real estate. Anywhere you can talk to a device and have it reply like a human, we develop “natural language.” It’s like Siri, except we're not system-driven. We're not trying to operate an iPhone. We're enabling narrative interaction, back-stories for video games, and the like. We're offering personalities for kids to play with in their toys, or the voice of a doctor people can interact with at home. The potential for games is huge and I'm a Dungeons and Dragons geek, so of course these automated characters are pretty cool to me.

So first off, open source should be recognized in these days of prism and NSA security as being one of the very best bets we have toward a transparent and/or secure method of communication (they ain't mutually exclusive). Information is dangerous if only one party has it and so the notion of free software (a core value of open source) is important if we care to support notions of democracy, equality and individual liberty .. this is not about Free as in beer but rather Free as in speech (a now famous adage and not my own). It's about the value of rights, separate from the value of money. A really important distinction that needs to be made, is that IP is a privatization measure. We think of property as a piece of land, say. These are fences and walls we're building. The concern I have is that this makes the world smaller and smaller for everybody. If there's a piece of IP with copyright, it seems to me like a form of censorship. It's an opportunity to censor people from using your content. It's refined censorship. The fundamental danger here is that we lose intellectual turf we can travel on, we control each other to protect what we have. People who trademark intellectual property only have one idea. They're busy protecting that one idea, and it doesn't allow for growth.

There are a number of different angles we can tackle it from. I'm really interested in bitcoin, which is open source because banks shouldn't control money. Like what you're doing with Paperhouses, you can open source the design of these things. It's cool because it's saying you can open up that intellectual space. Now, I'm forty four and graying at the edges but when I was a kid, computers were a thing to explore. Based on playing with the insides of computers, I learned things I make money from today. But now you have things like the iPad. It’s just a media consumption device. It's completely walled-in to prevent exploration, and I hate that stuff. You can't even change the battery on the thing, and there’s no USB port.

It's in our interest to develop tools we can play with. The more people can play with the tools, the more they can learn. In our case, we developed our thing, so I’m not worried about people who make it better. It increases our reputation. In the case of publishing, if you’re not selling millions of books, but tens of thousands of books, it's in your best interest to give your book away (digitally). Research shows it increases sales, because most people prefer to read a book in hand. That's changing as tablet tech improves, and isn't true if you're massively well known.

The bottom line is not risk of piracy but anonymity. By providing people with a free copy–and this really applies to architects–by providing people with a free example of what you're making, they understand what you're capable of, and you make it easy to share what you're doing with other people. As a result, attention grows, more people will pay you to do it. I'm going to contextualize this for a painter, author and architect: as long as there's a physical commodity to sell, giving away access increases sales. Architects would be very smart to give away all their designs so they can show all the work they can do. What idiot architect says “get on a plane and go to this address in Wisconsin to see what I do”? No one wants to do that. Give away the designs, the photos, the models. Then they can make money from work they get when people see what they're capable of.

Meanwhile, groups like the Motion Picture Association of America say they protect the artist. It's complete bullshit. They still think selling a plastic good is what's valuable. They don’t understand that it's about people liking the work. Again, this is not the case if you're Stephen King or Metallica, who opened their big mouth about this a few years ago, but look at the work that goes into it against the percentages. The MPAA makes money by relicensing. They make money while they sleep. They don't give a shit about the artist. How’s that for an impassioned rant? (laughter)

One of the real justifications of open source is that it makes more sense to collaborate than compete … licenses such as GPL provide an ability for many people to work on the same project and share in the fruits of their labors. I find it interesting to go to a country like Nicaragua or Panama and find that the data services are better there because it is government-provided as opposed to here in the United States (in which there is a fracturing of the network that has been redundantly built in several layers by competing companies). So in some cases, open source or free software is a socialist or even Commie value, but I like to think of myself as pragmatically evaluating the means as being justified by the end.

The music and record and publishing industries (and now, with bitcoins – the banking industries) don't seem to recognize that computers are copy machines and the Internet is a distribution machine. They still do not seem to recognize that virtual is real even though it is not physical. Consequently their business models are still based on the distribution of physical goods, automated manufacturing of physical consumer goods, notions of competition, hierarchy, and irreproducibility. This is simply an economic flatulence as these companies learn to add the Internet into their financial diets.

I've always found the virtual to be at least as valuable as the physical because I have made a living as an author and artist that sells intellectual-property. This means that I live or die by my reputation and the kind attentions of those around me. And this means that it is very much in my interest to give away as much as I can and to allow people to copy my books, paintings, games and other properties. This is just to say that the intellectual property battles of today are about supporting outdated business models, and open source thinking will zoom past them, out-evolve them, and leave them to die or evolve.

You can read more about Geppetto here, and view Mark's artwork here.