The Unfinished Work of Frank McCourt Jr.
The field of tech for good has a wealthy new benefactor, but a global conference based in Bucharest begs to differ.
Bigfoot, noun: a prominent or influential person.
Bigfoot, verb: to assert one’s authority or influence (over); to throw one’s weight around.
This is the story of an unfortunate collision between two projects in the world of civic tech, or tech for good, or, if you prefer, the world of new ideas and new technology. One is from the periphery of that world; the other from its center. The internet, that great leveler of access and disrupter of borders, made it possible for both to go global. What happened when they collided is still the subject of dispute. What follows is my best effort to tell the story as clearly as I can, and with an eye to what it shows about the realities of power and money in civic tech today.
Sixteen years ago, a scrappy young Romanian artist-photographer named Cristian Movila started a crowdfunding campaign to help children with cancer at Bucharest’s Marie Curie Hospital. He called his campaign Unfinished Dreams and ultimately raised more than $2 million for the hospital [Correction: The total was $3.2 million]. Three years later, as an outgrowth of that effort, he co-founded the EIDOS Foundation with Mihnea Constantinescu, a top Romania diplomat, to support more creative global projects focused on social transformation. In 2016, EIDOS launched Unfinished, an annual festival bringing together a global line-up of artists, journalists, filmmakers, human rights activists and technologists interested in cross-disciplinary learning and attracted to its founding humanist manifesto. By 2020, it had become a big event on the global conference circuit, attracting more than 4000 participants from around the world, about one-quarter from the United States. It boasted speakers like performance artist Marina Abramovic, author Anand Giridharadas, Kickstarter founder Perry Chen, MIT virtual reality pioneer Francesca Panetta, the director of #GivingTuesday Asha Curran, and Global Voices director Ivan Sigal. Its YouTube channel had garnered more than 1500 subscribers. Its website was at Unfinished.ro.
Meanwhile, in October 2020 in the United States, McCourt Global, an American corporation owned by Frank McCourt Jr., a billionaire real estate developer and sports team mogul, launched something also called Unfinished, describing it as “a new impact network devoted to advancing powerful solutions to the most critical challenges of our time.” It was not McCourt’s first venture into the social sector; in 2013 he gave $100 million to Georgetown University to establish the McCourt School of Public Policy. In 2018 he gave $45 million to The Shed, the gleaming new performance space at the heart of Hudson Yards, the gigantic high-end real estate development on Manhattan’s far West Side. Earlier this year he pledged to give another $100 million to Georgetown to expand the McCourt School’s work and diversify its student body. McCourt’s Unfinished launched with a series of four interactive online shows called Unfinished Live, asking speakers questions like “What is the democracy of the future?” and “What does a moral nation do?” Hosted by noted writer and activist Baratunde Thurston, the series featured luminaries like Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, #Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, celloist Yo-Yo Ma, guitarist Bruce Springsteen, tech solutionist Tristan Harris, 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang and many more. Its website was at Unfinished.com.
If Unfinished in Romania started from nowhere and managed to make itself into a global convening at the intersection of ideas, social change and tech, McCourt’s Unfinished was born big. Its founding partner network included A-list organizations like the Aspen Institute, The Shed (on whose board McCourt serves), For Freedoms, Ford Foundation, Ashoka, and PolicyLink. Empire Entertainment, a blue-chip full service entertainment production company with clients like the Time 100 Gala, the Tribeca Film Festival, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue launch, the Webby Awards and the Clinton Global Initiative, produced Unfinished Live. Interestingly, despite such a stunning array of speakers, the Unfinished Live video series got almost no attention. The episode featuring Alicia Garza and Bruce Springsteen has 18 views on YouTube (though maybe more watched live). That is not a typo, but no matter. In the marketplace of ideas that is today’s global public sphere™, Unfinished Live’s speaker line-up signified success, even if the conversations it hosted had no discernable impact.
This week, McCourt’s Unfinished is going even bigger with a two-day live event Thursday and Friday (in-person and online) at The Shed, titled “The Future is Decentralized.” If you’re interested in how new technologies can perhaps enable a healthier democracy and fairer economy, the Unfinished program promises a feast. Hosted again by Thurston, it has a top-shelf array of speakers that includes the co-founder of Ethereum Gavin Wood, the digital minister of Taiwan Audrey Tang, the president of the Aspen Institute Dan Porterfield, the founder of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth Shamina Singh, the cofounder of Higher Ground Labs Andrew McLaughlin, and the CEO of Glitch Anil Dash (and that’s just from the first day).
The program will also feature Project Liberty, McCourt’s effort to develop a “groundbreaking” new blockchain-based infrastructure for the next generation of the web. He has staked $100 million towards this goal, $75 million for creating the McCourt Institute at Georgetown and Sciences Po in Paris, and $25 million for “gifting of a visionary open-source protocol called the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol” (DSNP) that his team at Unfinished Labs is developing for the public. I asked Evan Henshaw-Plath, a veteran developer who launched Planetary.social last year and who is deep into the decentralized web conversation, what he thought of Project Liberty’s white paper on DSNP. He said that while the effort was well-intentioned, it didn’t recognize the work that others had already done and it needlessly relied too much on the blockchain. “The principal problem is that a heavily blockchain centric social media protocol has a cost related to each and every action. That's because smart contracts need to be run everywhere as part of their valuation. Running it multiple times or lots of times makes total sense when you're validating financial transactions but it's insane to do to validate that yes I indeed liked your post.” That said, Henshaw-Plath noted that a number of respected coders were consulting with Project Liberty and that it still might make a useful contribution.
I’ve been looking forward to attending Unfinished this week, partly because it will be the first time since the start of the pandemic that so many people at the intersection of tech and society that I know and follow will be together (at least in theory; who knows how much actual physical interaction any of us will feel comfortable with indoors). Obviously these kinds of events are also useful for the launching and validation of ideas as well as their cross-fertilization. That’s why for fifteen years, along with my co-founder Andrew Rasiej, we put on Personal Democracy Forum.
I have also been curious to learn more about Frank McCourt Jr. and all his ventures into the “tech for good” arena. After all, with just a little googling you can discover that he has led a colorful and very extravagant life, like other scions of real-estate families one can think of. His early Boston real-estate dealings left one of his original partners decrying his scruples. He bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for $431 million in 2004 in a deal that Rupert Murdoch helped finance and which was so highly leveraged that a local talk show host anointed him “McBankrupt.” Eight years later he sold it for a record $2.15 billion. By then, fans were alienated by how he and his wife managed the team and its business, raising parking fees, charging the Dodgers millions to play in their own stadium, paying one of their sons $400,000 a year to provide his opinions to the team’s management, and putting Vladimir Shpunt, a Russian physicist in Boston who promised he could help the Dodgers win games by focusing his brain energy to them, on the team payroll. Major League Baseball’s Commissioner Bud Selig, who was trying to block the sale of the team, accused McCourt of “looting” $189 million from the franchise for his personal use. McCourt outmaneuvered Selig by declaring bankruptcy. His divorce from his wife Jamie exposed very expensive tastes in real estate (at least seven lavish homes worth tens of millions in all). McCourt has several speaking slots during this week’s event. Not only will it be interesting to hear what he has to say, it will also be illuminating to hear what others have to say about him.
When Worlds Collide
I didn’t know anything about the collision between Unfinished (Romania) and Unfinished (US) until I mentioned the upcoming convening in New York to my friend Jerry Michalski, who had spoken at the Romanians’ Unfinished 2020. He told me that the Romanian Unfinished folks were very unhappy about the McCourt Unfinished project. So, I reached out to Cristian Movila and Capucine Gros, the couple at the heart of Unfinished, to hear what they had to say. I’ve how had several conversations with them and they have shared a variety of documents and emails with me, some of which I have permission to quote from and others that have to remain private. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a messy story. But at its heart is a conflict over the ethics of creativity and intellectual property rights in a connected world. Movila and Gros say, “Someone is out there using our name, looking exactly like us, going after our speakers, and the wrong was not made right.” And while that is a bit hyperbolic, I think I can see where they’re coming from.
The first that Movila and Gros heard of McCourt Unfinished’s existence was, they say, on October 22, 2020, when they saw a notice for Unfinished Live in the Aspen Institute’s newsletter. They were immediately upset by what they saw as clear similarities in the event’s presentation to their own, in terms of “not only in name but also style, language, concept, design, people, and focus.” (See below for an example of what concerned them.)
They also thought they saw big overlaps in how the two events were described, noting how Unfinished Live, like their own event, talked about being a work “in progress,” focused on things like “curiosity,” “diverse” attendees, and bringing together people like CEOs in the same room as artists. (See below for another example; the language on the left is from Unfinished.ro; on the right from Unfinished.com.)
Unfinished 2020, the Romanian-hosted event, was also centered on the problem of trust, a topic that Unfinished Live, the American-hosted event, also highlighted. Movila and Gros also suspected that someone from the McCourt side who they had previous contact with had taken their name and idea and given it to McCourt, which added to their ire. So four days later, they had their lawyers write to McCourt Global to assert that Unfinished.com was infringing the copyrights of the EIDOS Foundation under the terms of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. (They also say they wrote a personal letter at the same time to McCourt, but the McCourt people say they never received any such letter.)
The McCourt side did not take kindly to the Romanians’ cease-and-desist letter. Two weeks later, their lawyers at Sullivan and Cromwell replied, saying that they found EIDOS’ claims without merit under US law and the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy. Most important, they rejected Movila and Gros’ implication that they had appropriated their idea and name, writing, “Our client’s inspiration for the adoption of the UNFINISHED mark was the Gettysburg Address…Every school child in the United States learns Lincoln’s words: ‘The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.’ The use of UNFINISHED is meant to evoke a deeply-rooted sense of American hope for renewed improvement and betterment, and unfinished.com was independently created.”
Brin Frazier, McCourt Global’s chief communications officer, told me, “The Unfinished initiative was independently developed, and its name was chosen years before we learned about the existence of another Unfinished organization based in Romania. The inspiration behind the Unfinished name stemmed from a desire to incorporate the word ‘shed’ – due to our connection to The Shed in New York City, which is the site of Unfinished’s flagship conference – into the initiative’s title. The name’s connection to President Lincoln’s famous line in the Gettysburg Address, calling all of us to be dedicated to the ‘unfinished work,’ clinched the choice.” Other than blocking all Romanian IP addresses from accessing the Unfinished.com site, an action they took immediately, the Americans stood firm. Movila and Gros saw this modest move as insulting, since they already had a global audience for their own brand.
McCourt’s legal team also rejected the Romanians’ claim that because they had trademarked Unfinished in Romania, they had a right to legal relief in the United States under the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property. That convention is supposed to protect “well-known” foreign marks. In addition to asserting that Congress had not adopted the convention, the Sullivan and Cromwell lawyers argued that the Romanian Unfinished was not just not well-known, it wasn’t, like McCourt, seeking to reach a “broad and diverse” market. They wrote, “The language you quote from the unfinished.com website itself reflects the intent to provide services that will involve people from all walks of life. Far from intending to appeal to a narrow, specialized audience [of global thinkers and makers, which EIDOS had said was both groups’ target], McCourt will ‘connect thought-leaders, culture-shapers, policy-makers and innovators’; involve ‘communities, creative media and new technology’; and ‘elevate’ the voices of those who have not yet even been heard. Thus, for [EIDOS’] mark to enjoy protection under U.S. law, even under your theory that well-known marks are protected, the mark would need to have a high level of recognition in the United States; there is no evidence that that is the case.” As for the confusion between the URLs unfinished.ro and unfinished.com, the McCourt lawyers said their client didn’t buy unfinished.com in order to harm the Romania-based event. And besides, they added, the Romanians “could have done [that] had it chosen to do so.”
In other words, flea, meet elephant.
Once that power imbalance was made clear, the McCourt lawyers magnanimously concluded, “That being said, the Eidos Foundation, Mr. Movila, and McCourt all have the goal of making the world a better place. Our client believes all of their resources would be better spent working to achieve that goal in a cooperative fashion and reaching an amicable resolution of any differences in a fashion that would advance their mutual goals.” And so they offered to talk. Conversations ensued over possible ways to co-exist.
Unfortunately, after several months, talks broke down. From what I can tell, trust between the two sides was never strong. McCourt is a hard-charging businessman; Movila and Gros are human rights activists and artists. The McCourt camp apparently didn’t like being hit from the start with a cease-and-desist letter. The Romanian camp didn’t appreciate that McCourt kept pursuing trademark registrations for Unfinished in various European countries and launched a new derivative project called Unfinished Labs. McCourt clearly had the stronger legal hand, but Movila and Gros felt they had a strong moral claim. Frazier, the McCourt spokesperson, wouldn’t comment on the negotiations other than to say, “After learning about the Romanian organization, we looked into their mission and saw some potential for alignment. Although we made an extensive and good faith effort to identify ways our organizations might be able to work together, we ultimately couldn’t make a collaboration work. We wish them well.”
The Romanian camp is still not happy, but until now they’ve not said anything public about the dispute. Here’s how Movila sees the whole episode:
“To us, the bigger story is about power and geographic injustice. Not caring about anyone or anything else but your own needs. Because even if it [the use of “Unfinished” by McCourt] was a coincidence, then the right way was to acknowledge the overlap, apologize, and seek for a solution. The wrong way is to push forward. It's the same logic as doing things ‘the bully way’: doing what you want and then paying for it later if someone protests, to silence them. (We imagine very well the conversation: ‘Who cares about Romania? We can just block their IPs.’) Of course this is clearly and again our opinion and interpretation but, for one who speaks up, how many don’t? We cannot help making the comparison with a certain oligarch mentality that everything can be claimed or purchased, without any consideration for context or history. And we especially cannot helping making the comparison these days with Afghanistan. It's even closer to my heart than this story with Unfinished, not just because I've been there 36 times and care so deeply that it breaks my heart to see how the US doesn't care at all now. But also because on top of trying to organize the festival here, for the last month, I have been 24/7 working to get out Afghani journalists, fixers, and translators that the US-led alliance abandoned. Fixing, here too, the consequences of a major power imbalance and a ‘bomb first, apologize later (or not...)’ attitude.”
He adds, “This kind of creativity-stealing is unfortunately not uncommon. We know we are just one of the many Davids facing Goliaths. And unless we start speak up about the system, attitudes, and imbalances that allow this kind of unfair competition, or at least demonstrate fairer and more exemplary behavior about creative respect and acknowledgement, then it will keep going unmentioned. We can't help also point out the irony of the situation for a conference that is so-called ‘about democracy, fairness, decentralization, and social impact...’”
Was this “creativity-stealing”? Other than the overlapping name, and some similar visual elements, there’s nothing that the McCourt side took from the Romanian side that wasn’t already in the public domain. Still, if you put years into a brand and then someone else steps on it and refuses to give it up or acknowledge that you were there first, you’d be angry too. (When Sean Parker called his civic engagement app Brigade, ignoring that Code for America already had a big subsidiary project called the Code for America Brigade, folks there were pissed.)
There’s a larger point here as well. With Unfinished 2020, the Unfinished conference in New York this week, the McCourt Institute and Project Liberty, the McCourt empire is waltzing into an already crowded space, claiming attention and seeking acclaim for doing things that plenty of other people and organizations were already doing, without asking first: Is this what is really needed? After I told him the whole saga, Douglas Rushkoff, the longtime media theorist and author, seemed dismayed that the McCourt side hadn't been more careful, saying, “Oy. Didn't they do a Google search first and discover that someone was already doing an 'Unfinished' event? These new initiatives really need to begin with a Google search in the big sense – on everything. Is anyone else building a blockchain based social network for civics? Is anybody else doing multiracial liquid democracy? Is anyone else trying to rebuild the web?”
Those are questions you are not supposed to ask while staring at a gorgeous multimedia artwork in a 17,000-square-foot exhibition space paid for with leverage from the likes of Rupert Murdoch and listening to Very Important People tell us that “The Future is Decentralized” while someone from the very center of the present pays for your drink.
[Note: I originally attributed the long quote above from Cristian Movila to his partner Capucine Gros; I regret the error.]