30 July 2010

Towards a Commons Taxonomy

As regular readers will know, I regard the concept of the commons as an increasingly important one, not least because it pulls together threads found in many disparate areas. But one consequence of that richness and broad reach is that a unitary idea of the commons is not enough: we need a taxonomy of the many different kinds of commons to help us tease out their particular characteristics in different situations.

Here's one such attempt:

The Five Commons constitutes an evolving vision of the emerging 21st Century economy. Each of the five commons represents a key area in which transition is apparent.

The Forward Foundation hopes that by sharing this vision, people will find clues and insights into new ways of structuring human activity and sustainable living.

Five Commons Presentations

Here are links to presentations of each of the Five Commons.

* Thing Commons
* Culture Commons
* Energy Commons
* Food Commons
* Access Commons

The associated presentations are well-worth watching - they're quite short.

Those are interesting choices, but I can't help feeling they're somewhat arbitrary. I also miss there any sense of the key differences between certain commons.

For example, there is a huge gulf between non-rivalrous digital commons, and rivalrous analogue ones. Where the latter can suffer the "tragedy of the commons", the former cannot. Similarly, there's a big difference between environmental commons like air, sea or forests, and artifical commons - the "Thing Commons" mentioned above. I'm also a little unsure whether the "Access Commons" - which is "access to infrastructure and services (i.e. politics)" - is really best construed as such.

Still, this is all thought-provoking stuff, and as such, to be welcomed. I shall certainly be pondering more as a result.

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Crosbie Fitch said...

It is dangerous to recognise the concept of a cultural or knowledge commons, because this implies a recognition that only SOME of mankind's culture need be protected from enclosure for the benefit of the public - a bit like WIPO's farcical moves to 'protect' folklore.

All published culture and knowledge belongs to the public. There is no 'commons'.

Just as the unnatural constraint of copyright is coming to its overdue end, it is perverse to suggest a need for a reservation - unless you are hoping to persuade the public to respect a new line in the sand: "This big 'commons' zone is yours ok? So don't venture outside these limits into our proprietary zone. You must respect our monopoly there!"

Glyn Moody said...

@Crosbie: I don't really see the problem. Yes, culture and knowledge belongs to the public: why not acknowledge it as a commons? I'm not suggesting that we recognise intellectual monopolies beyond that...

Crosbie Fitch said...

A commons implies that without due care and consideration there will be tragedy.

It insinuates that use and exploitation should be rationed if culture is not to be depleted through overuse, or worse, that without careful husbandry and fertiliser (tax) it may not be replenished.

The only impetus for a 'commons' is through fear of enclosure by unnatural privilege. It's far better to simply recognise that the privilege is coming to its inevitable end, than to pretend a need to create protected reservations before the indigenous and ancient 'unprotected' culture becomes extinct.

The concept of 'commons' is a reaction to increasing pressure for ever harsher copyright enforcement, but that increasing pressure is entirely due to copyright's increasing ineffectiveness. It is copyright that is clutching at any means of survival, not culture.

So, a cultural commons is conceptually flawed.

It would be better to simply recognise that a monopoly on the manufacture of copies is, contrary to received wisdom, unnecessary, unethical, unachievable, unhelpful and culturally unproductive.

Glyn Moody said...

@Crosbie: ah, you seem to be thinking of analogue, rivalrous commons...

The great thing about digital commons - or abstract ones - is that there can be no tragedy, because abundant resources can't be "over-used" or depleted....

Crosbie Fitch said...

Well, that's one way of agreeing with me - to effectively explain that a 'digital commons' is an oxymoron. :-)

In other words, the great thing about mankind's culture is that it's NOT a commons.

Unless, of course, in our infinite wisdom we invent privileges to constrain the use of our own culture (and attempt to enforce usage levies). In that case, then yes, we do have to start rationing our use of culture (we need to keep some of our earnings for food and shelter - we can't give it all up to the media corps.).

The idea of a cultural commons only makes sense to those indoctrinated by copyright. It's analogous to a ghetto of anarchy within a police state, a corruption of cultural liberty invented by an impoverished mind.

Anonymous said...

Hi Crosbie,

Just some comments on what you've been saying:

"It's far better to simply recognise that the privilege is coming to its inevitable end..."
Yeah so how many people are doing that? I would hazard a guess at 0.00000000001% of the population of earth. How realistic is this? It's not.

"The idea of a cultural commons only makes sense to those indoctrinated by copyright." I think you can safely assume that basically everyone is indoctrinated by copyright. To not acknowledge this is foolish.

Your argument is essentially, "we should ignore the commons because 6 billion people should just change their minds tomorrow and then everything will be a-okay".

I think your arguments are empty and so ideological as to be unrealistic. This is not even taking into account the dismissive manner in which you present your argument that would alienate the vast majority of people that read it. I would rather go for the commons myself, thanks.

And speaking for myself I don't think that Glyn's comments validated your argument even using the fancy little word tricks that you attempted: "You say the opposite to me but because of the words you used you supported my viewpoint! QAD." Not.

Regards, Martin.

Crosbie Fitch said...

Hi Martin,

I've had difficulty explaining my grievance concerning the contemporary affectation with 'commons', even with Glyn.

I've got no problem with people recognising the natural advantages of a public at liberty to share and build upon its own culture, even exhibiting some subsconscious recognition that such liberty is natural.

Neutralising copyright (and patent) in whole or part in order to reproduce a simulacrum of such liberty appears better than its lack.

However, there is a risk that the evangelisation and creation of such 'commons' consolidates anachronistic privileges (copyright & patent) as their undeniable foundation. People then conclude that mankind's knowledge is a fundamentally limited and consumable resource, but through philanthropic ventures (cf libraries), subsets can be collected together into public 'commons' where people are permitted to share and build upon them (as in protected ghettoes).

That such commons (unlike any other) are magically self-replenishing is insinuated as a unique feature of these commons (instead of a fundamental difference between information and consumable resources).

Thus the use of 'commons' instead of liberty is a casuist's subliminal reinforcement of the indoctrination that published works are a bounded and limited set of 'content' to which the public does not have, and cannot expect to have, unconstrained liberty. At least the free software movement understands that it is freedom they are restoring to the public - they do not instead imply the creation of a software 'commons'.

So, 'commons' helps entrench copyright as the natural law governing mankind's knowledge and culture, and cultural liberty as a fleeting opportunity to be found in such artificial sandpits, playpens, and larger 'commons' as may be charitably bestowed for the amateur public's entertainment and play.

I am not attempting to appeal to those indoctrinated by copyright, nor to those infatuated by the idea of 'intellectual commons', but to those who aren't. I am not surprised if I alienate or offend devout believers of 18th century privilege.

We should not have cultural liberty because altruistic individuals and organisations are kind enough to permit it to us, but because it is ours in the first place!

If you would have liberty by natural right instead of by charitable gift then you need to beware of 'commons' as the language of the latter.

Unknown said...

Hi Crosbie,
(Part 1)
Thanks for replying in such a level headed manner it is much appreciated.

I think where we differ is as follows:
By default there is such a thing as the "public domain" where things go after they have "expired", this enriches our culture. When the copyright of a book expires, the book lands in the public domain. Same for patents and any other "intellectual property" with an expiration date. The problem is, where is this public domain?
I feel that what you're saying is that if we create a commons and use it as a tool for accessing many different cultural elements then we are pretending there is no such thing as a public domain and it will fall into disuse.

The problem is there is no "public domain" in my opinion. Where is it? What is it's location? When a book falls out of copyright where do you log onto the "public domain" and get yourself a copy? The problem is that for all these things that expire or enter the public domain in different ways there is no destination for them. If I want access to a book that has an expired copyright I have to go and find the book. What about a search where I can find a list of books out of copyright? Many of these things don't exist right now.

When a patent expires it does not get put somewhere it just disappears in the archive of the patent office. Most people don't have access to it.

Unknown said...

(Part 2)
To me the establishment of a commons is creating a destination for all publicly accessible works be they books, patents or any other pieces of information. If someone says: "Well where is it?" we can respond and say: "It's in the commons (or the public domain)... right over there!". This would include works that are expressly created to be added to the commons or the public domain. This I feel is the one missing element of the commons so far. I think this is a mistake, there should be an actual destination, a place or website, where everything belonging to the commons actually resides.

To me the commons should be a destination. Call it the public domain or the commons or whatever you want, but once you have an actual entity you have something to defend. If you defend it successfully then later you can start expanding it. Most people can't see the value of the public domain because it is such a vague and abstract concept. Defending the public domain just doesn't make sense to many people. If people could be educated and shown that a specific thing, like a commons, is valuable then there will be a major shift. After this if the copyright lobby tries to extend copyright once again it can be more easily shown that it will damage the commons or the public domain and it will be easier to stop them.

Once the concept and entity is better established new legislation protecting that commons can be established. After this would come the legislation that I would hope for most: laws that would compel the transferrance of the work to a specific entity for access by the public once the work expires or becomes available to the public domain for other reasons.

Unknown said...

(Part 3)
Right now there are probably hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of works that are technically in the public domain but they are nowhere to be found due to their inaccessibility.

I don't subscribe to your statement that you could compare a software program to a copyrighted work.

"At least the free software movement understands that it is freedom they are restoring to the public - they do not instead imply the creation of a software 'commons'."

There is a big difference. If I want I can see a software program and go and write one that operates in exactly the same way. I cannot copy a book in the same way. I can write a similar story but I cannot copy the words. With software I can write my own words but have basically the same results, not so for books. The author of the books (and the code) has a rightful monopoly on their work but the real world results are very different.

I even disagree with Glyn :-) where he says: "...is that there can be no tragedy, because abundant resources can't be "over-used" or depleted..." because people don't have access to the vast majority of these resources. Having theoretical access to those works as legislated by law is not the same as having actual access to them.

What is needed is a destination, a repository of all works that is in the commons or the public domain. A combination of sourceforge, google books and the USPTO if you will. And Crosbie...you can call it whatever you like. :-)

Regards, Martin.

Crosbie Fitch said...


The public domain comprises all published works. That's it.

The initial pretext behind copyright was that it incentivised PUBLICATION (delivery of work to the public = into the public domain), and that it was purely this delivery of 'original' work to the public, that the monopoly purported to incentivise (as if it wouldn't otherwise occur). It wasn't about delivering work for the public to play around with once copyright's monopoly had expired. Remember, in the 18th & 19th century the public didn't possess printers (they were more expensive than their houses, not as they are today, cheaper than the ink that fills them).

It was only in the 20th century that amateurs began to purchase and dabble with their own reproduction facilities and find themselves potentially at risk of copyright litigation, but even then, that only became significant if they attempted to make and distribute their own copies for gain. Individual's being sued for freely distributing unauthorised copies (as opposed to their publishers) is extremely recent. It used to be that any creative/derivative work was fine, irrespective of infringement, and the publisher would clear it (paying for necessary licenses).

So, the idea that copyright is a quid pro quo as in 'monopoly for limited time in order that the public can share and build upon the work thereafter' is a completely new pretext. A new myth to replace the old. That such a myth then helps pretend the exclusion of works still 'protected' by copyright from the public domain is no accident. It helps make the line in the sand look like a trench.

I quote 'protected', because you have to ask yourself precisely what is being protected from who and for whose benefit?

Mankind's culture is being 'protected' from mankind in order to benefit the publishing corporations (effectively collecting a tax on whatever cultural exchange they contrive or permit).

So, the public domain is right in front of you. All intellectual works that you can readily obtain or access (without burglary) are in the public domain.

That's the definition we relinquish at our peril.

The anachronism that is copyright is now simply a threat of litigious violence - it's no longer a means of enforcing a monopoly. One could more easily 'educate' all birds to stop copying each other's song with the threat and occasional use of air rifles. To communicate is vital to mankind, and that includes cultural exchange howsoever it may be achieved, whether copies are manufactured or not.

By all means create 'commons' to simulate cultural liberty in a carefully controlled environment, ensuring hermetic isolation from the precious and depletable resource that comprises the bulk of mankind's culture (automatically 'protected' from such depletion by copyright), but don't expect me to sing hallelujah. I champion cultural liberty for mankind, not free association in common ghettos.

It is not our growing struggle for cultural liberty that is aberrant or delinquent, but copyright, the instrument of injustice that suspended our natural right to copy in the 18th century, the corrupt prohibition of cultural exchange.

So don't pussy foot around creating ghettos, reclaim your natural right to copy. Share and build upon your own culture.

LB said...

Mapping the New Commons" by Charlotte Hess. A good start on a modern taxonomy of the commons:

I typed out the TOC for my own use, so I will share:

I. Introduction
A. Background
B. The Purpose of This Paper
C. Overview of the Map (Figure 1)

II. Entrypoints into the New Commons
A. Protecting the Commons
B. Collective Action, Peer-Production, and Mass Collaboration
C. Tragedy of the Commons
D. Teaching the Commons
E. Identification of New or Evolving Types of Commons within
Traditional Commons
F. Rediscovery of the Commons
III. The Map and Its Sectors
A. Cultural Commons

Fashion, Indigenous Culture, Music, Nonprofit Organizations, Public Art, Spiritual/Sacred Commons, Sports (Snowmobiles, Surfing Lanes, Watercraft ) (LB note whitewater rafting vs fly fishing vs. jet boats), Tourism (Landscapes, eco-tourism)

B. Neighborhood Commons
Homeless, Housing (Homeowners' Associations, Apartment communities), Community gardens, Security, Sidewalks, Streets, Silence/Noise
C. Infrastructure Commons
Electromagnetic spectrum, Public radio, Wireless communication, Mass communication, Internet infrastructure, Transportation (Roads , Airports, Seaports, LB Notes – Mail Delivery)
D. Knowledge Commons
Digital Divide, Education (Note Audrey Waters on tech ed; Universities, Civic Education), Intellectual Property Rights (anticommons, copyright, creative/scientific commons, libre commons, patents, semicommons), Internet (Domain Names, Infrastructure, Access), Libraries (Digital & Traditional, Information Commons, Free Access, Public Domain, Science (Open Science, Taxonomies, Microbiological Commons, Genetic commons), Peer Production/Mass Collaboration (Conservation commons, Open-Source Software, SmartMobs, Commons Websites and Blogs)

E. Medical and Health Commons
F. Market Commons
G. Global Commons
IV. Challenges of Studying New Commons
A. What are Commons?
B. What is “New” in New Commons?
V. Conclusion


Glyn Moody said...

LB: thanks for the link, looks interesting