Stone Soup is a Grimm Brother’s fairytale found in many different versions all across Europe about the benefits of cooperation and selflessness.

According to the story, some travellers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travellers. The travellers fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire in the village square. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travellers answer that they are making “stone soup,” which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavour, which they are missing. The villager doesn’t mind parting with just a little bit to help them out, so it gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travellers again mention their stone soup which hasn’t reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all.

Nowadays, a large number of collaborative, non-profit projects embark according to this very title—to some extent, the allegory of the stone soup functions as a model for a new, peer-based economy, in which a large amount of “free” or “gift” work brings a valuable final product.

From do it yourself supercomputers to collaborative housing projects, many small, grassroots enterprises took the name of this fable, but the overall idea around the tale is even more widespread in contemporary culture: take the copyleft GNU project for example, which is a free operating system software, developed by a huge community of contributors.

The Stone Soup tale concept might be familiar to those who are into peer-to-peer networking and other network based productions. The concept of “Commons-based peer production”—a  term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler to describe a new model of economic production in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects, mostly without traditional hierarchical organization or financial compensation, is a well known phenomenon of the gift economy. Peer-to peer systems tend to have the same consequential systems as the one we encounter in the fable: everybody contributes, therefore everybody is  involved, but with different levels of responsibility and commitment.

In the case of peer-to-peer file sharing torrent downloads which take up a massive amount of today’s Internet traffic, both the actual transfer and to some some extent, the legal consequences, are shared in exactly the same way as in the tale: everybody is involved, yet nobody owns the product (soup). A movie, or music, book or any other type of artwork, is distributed by a network of peers, who each only redistribute a small fracture of the original. They do not own a product, nor distribute it, but all of them, together have the final product. Of course, peer-to-peer file sharing is a hot legal issue, with many odds and evens, but in most cases, the “original contributor,” the first seeder is considered to be legally responsible for their doing. In explanation: those who own a product in a file sharing system are called seeders, as they “seed” the work; those who exchange only small fractions or “ingredients of the stone soup” are called the leechers. Any leecher who “leeches” enough ingredients, automatically becomes a seeder.

Of course in the case of these “semi-legal” exchanges, it is extremely difficult to identify who is the responsible, who is the author, the contributor, and who is the audience; and even the nature of the “soup” is still to be defined legally. But let’s not forget Yochai Benkler’s definition of peer-to-peers as being a new model of production, not only distribution.

But what if all the soups made in the village were “stone soups?” What if all “soups” in the town were free, without a stable market of “priced soups?” Could the village survive, if each person added a single ingredient to several soups? And from then on, could the village rely on free soups, and also free vegetables, free smithy work, free governance? It may sound like a socialist utopia, but at the same time these questions are clearly related to the concept of gift economy based societies.

By Peter Fuchs. Orginally posted September 13, 2008 in Periferic Biennial.
image: Pot boiling on fire via Shutterstock