What We Call the Information Commons

What defines the information commons? Better, who defines it, grooms it, pays for it, ensures it is a vibrant place to hang out and rummage around in? Can we first ask where this idea of a commons comes from?

Today’s information commons crept into public perception with the beginning of the internet in 1993, as people realized that entire topologies of knowledge were changing, escaping the classical walls of libraries and archives and mutating into easily shared and massively used resources distributed over computer networks. Social scientists started pointing out that this state of things somewhat mirrors the commons of natural based resources – fisheries and grasslands – studied throughout the 20th century [1]. Since then, it’s been a question of how to sustain and nurture this totally new commons, jostled as it is on both sides by either privatization, or legal restrictions in favor of older models of creation and distribution.

To understand the threats to this new type of commons, a few scholars have drawn parallels to England’s enclosure movement over the course of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, when England’s government slowly converted its public land into private property. Where once you had a forest crawling with pheasants and geese, fair game for everyone to hunt, suddenly you have sheep grazing on fenced off land, fuel to the lucrative wool trade. You also start to see a bustling new criminal class of poachers.

According to James Boyle, most economic historians don’t see this privatization as a malicious stroke to the peasant class, but rather as an upgrade. The popularly called “tragedy of the commons” (coined by biologist Garrett Hardin in a 1968Science article) describes the once-shared resources as too poorly managed and over exploited to yield much value for the greater good anyway. It paints the commons as a degradation of ill-managed, finite resources that could yield more efficient and profitable returns in the hands of government or, even better, the private market [2].

Nobel-prize winner Elinor Ostrom and co-writer Charlotte Hess debunk this generalization. Their studies of common-pool resources – fisheries, forests, irrigation systems – offer nuance to a field that typically overlooks successful examples of dispersed, long-term cooperation. Rather than turning common-pool resources over to the government for regulation or converting it to private property, users of common-pool resources can devise their own rules to govern what they share, and do a surprisingly good job of it. Examples range from gatherers in the interior grasslands of Asia, to New Mexico’s acequias, democratic irrigation systems dispersing precious, limited water [3].

When we talk about the networked information commons today, can we derive any similarities from traditional, collectively shared goods – fisheries, forests, water – to digital resources like databases, digital photos, and electronic monographs? And when we talk about a ‘second enclosure,’ does it make sense to compare digital fences such as copyright extensions and rights management tools, to 15th century privatization of agrarian land?

According to Ostrom and Hess, the solution to such comparisons can be solved by considering how digital resources are a fuzzy hybrid combining the properties of two types of traditional goods:  intangible, shared information like storytelling around a fire, and two, the finite common-pool resources just described (e.g. water). Intangible information is defined as a pure public good that it is both non-excludable (easy to share by word of mouth and difficult to prevent someone from using it, like a sunset) and non-rival (like air, undiminished by consumption – I tell you my idea and still have it for myself). Public information can only be regulated when it is captured or tangibly represented. Our economic, legal, and cultural systems have figured out laws and economic systems for information goods only once they took on the tangible, rivalous forms of books or printed photos [4].

At first digital goods look a lot like intangible information. They can be non-excludable – anyone with a computer can quite easily copy a piece of the digitized pie. And digital goods are non-rival. Unlike common-pool resources such as trees, fish or apples, digital information can be handed out to anyone while never depleting the common stock. Going a step further, both intangible and digital information are cumulative; when someone made mash-ups of an old G.I. Joe animation, the original clip wasn’t only left intact, it became the raw building blocks of a cult hit.

But digital information diverges critically from intangible knowledge when it is captured, assembled, and represented as digital artifacts. This unique amalgam of traits – non-excludable and non-rivalrous like knowledge, yet strangely capturable and tangible – helps explain why digital goods require entirely new legal, economic, and epistemic paradigms. Once information is captured as digital content, the law may determine what cut of it goes into the collective pot as a common-pool resource, and what is withheld through property laws or restrictive technologies. The ideal of an information commons – a massive, ripe patch of beneficially shared cultural goods that costs little to copy and only grows in value the more we pluck from it – while theoretically feasible, is often choked off by the market.

This fault line of enclosure grows even starker as technologies blur the distinction between intangible and tangible information, allowing us to capture information we once thought uncommodifiable and outside the market altogether, a trick Monsanto understood when it patented genetic structures. Here is where Boyle finds the most obvious parallel between England’s medieval enclosures and today’s: both convert items that were at one point free for all to use into someone’s legally sanctioned, excludable property. Courtesy of the European Database Directive, for example, companies now have the ability to copyright compilations of facts. Publishers can license their publications as bundles of digital documents they control remotely, contributing to the ephemeralization of library collections that traditionally acquired printed copies. Boyle’s concept of enclosure, then, helps us to monitor these fault lines as they grow, to anticipate them before they rise, and also to imagine reversals.

Another awkward consequence of the non-excludable digital artifact is the part we all know. Commonplace, non-commercial gestures, like sharing a book with a bittorrent community, is considered a threat to the honed business plans of creative industries. Yesterday’s poachers are today’s file-swapping pirates. The enclosure of the commons breeds new kinds of criminals, and by now that includes most anyone using a computer.

These are the critiques. At the same time, we’re not at a loss for a downpour of new open content added to the digital commons every day by local collections, libraries, governments and individual producers. Innovative projects and legal tools, like Creative Commons, let creators specify their own rules for ownership and reuse. The Open Access movement encourages scholars to align with green journals and refuse to hand over exclusive rights to commercial publishers, allowing free availability to research that could make way for a global, interoperable scholarly library. Throw in Europeana, Flickr, the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive – the obvious parade of invaluable, free resources that sweeten the pot.

In the literature I’ve read so far, always critical of enclosure and optimistic about open content channels, little is advanced to describe the economic skeleton that might prop up these repositories, or the ones inevitably on the way. Even if we establish the information commons, how will we fund it? Who will maintain it? Who will sift through the glut of content and determine what’s worth saving? How can users gain literacy to navigate through all the new options? These will likely be questions we chew on during the upcoming Economies of Open Content conference.

I’d like to see two themes explored further. One is how quickly government and institutions can build adaptable, clever legal and technical systems that reflect the new situation – for instance, avenues to reward scholars who use open access institutional repositories rather than commercial academic presses. This might require some political intervention and lobbying (Open Access and Creative Commons have done a good job on the free content end, but I’m less familiar with efforts to address systemic economic support.) Another issue is that some degree of convergence seems inevitable in order to distribute costs; institutions must share resources. Open data and standards, such as the linked data movement, might be the right direction, as well the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) repositories that allow institutions to back up proprietary content over a shared server. Either way, the crucial step is to understand how our knowledge commons, once defined, can at least create some well-groomed patches that are used well into the future.

[1] Hess, C, and E Ostrom. “Ideas, Artifacts, and Facilities: Information as a Common-Pool Resource.” Law and Contemporary Problems (2003): 111-146.

[2] Boyle, James. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2008.

[3] Walljasper, Jay. “The Victory of the Commons.” Yes! Magazine. 27 October 2009. Last accessed 8 July 2010.

[4] Hess, C, and E Ostrom. “Introduction: An Overview of the Knowledge Commons.” Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, MIT Press, 2006.

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